While the NBA Draft Lottery will be held tomorrow night, there are many hoping to have their name called in the first round. Had Lance Stephenson been asked a year ago about the draft, he would’ve thought he was a lock for the lottery. This year, however, Stephenson finds himself on the first round bubble.
It's hard to see how this happened, considering this was his freshman season at the University of Cincinnati, where Stephenson played well, being named the Big East Rookie of the Year while averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game.
A year ago Stephenson was one of the top high school recruits in the country, a McDonald’s All American.
ESPN had him ranked as the 12th best high school senior in the country, among the likes of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Xavier Henry, and Derrick Favors.
Stephenson attended Abraham Lincoln High School (where he averaged 29-10-4 as a senior), the same school New York basketball phenom Sebastian Telfair attended. At Lincoln, Stephenson won the state championship in his sophomore and junior years, and he was named Player of the Year by the New York Daily News back-to-back years. Stephenson was named New York's Mr. Basketball as a senior and had NBA scouts anticipating the date he would put on an NBA uniform.
He was dubbed “Born Ready,” and a Dime magazine cover said he could be an All Star in the NBA as a high school senior. Stephenson grabbed the attention of the New York media as the best New York basketball player since Sebastian Telfair.
Stephenson also had a bad rep coming out of Lincoln. Many felt he was a selfish ball hog, a big-time scorer, and a head case for coaches. The bad rep scared a lot of schools away despite Stephenson being a top 10 recruit by many scouts. Last season, he seemed to have been on good behavior and distributed the ball well, averaging 2.5 assists.
However the bad rep still follows him around and concerns scouts.
After Stephenson made his commitment to the University of Cincinnati, he entered school with much well-deserved hype. Preseason scouts felt he was a likely lottery pick, a lock for the first round. However Stephenson didn’t impress scouts the way others in his class like Wall, Cousins, and Henry did. He didn’t dominate the Big East but won Rookie of the Year honors and put up very solid numbers.
At the end of the season Stephenson told reporters he was certainly coming back for a second season in order to work on his game and polish up.
"It’s not a disappointment thing," Stephenson said. "It just wasn't my time. I want to be a spectacular (NBA) player, not average."
The thought was if Stephenson made improvements, he would become a top 10 pick. However reporters were shocked to find out Stephenson would be forgoing his sophomore year and declaring for the NBA draft, fulfilling his “Born Ready” nickname. Stephenson felt he needed to financially support his family, especially his daughter.
The immediate reaction to Stephenson declaring for the draft was overwhelmingly negative considering Stephenson was in the same class as the John Walls and Xavier Henrys a year ago. As recently as this week during the pre-draft workouts in Las Vegas Stephenson addressed his bad rep, saying last season was a humbling experience for him. Stephenson realized that his pedigree as a high school phenom alone won’t help him get drafted. From now on, none of that matters.
As for the scouting report on Stephenson, he is an elite talent. The 6-6 guard can score in a variety of ways, whether it’s slashing to the basket or settling for a mid-range jump shot, going down low or creating his own shot off the dribble. Stephenson’s game is very well-suited for the NBA.
Last season at Cincinnati he showed the ability to handle running a team from the point guard position. Stephenson has the rare skill of being a physical guard, he doesn’t shy away from contact, and looks to go down low and post up sometimes—plus he relies on his strength to overpower others. He reminds me of a Stephen Jackson type who can fill up the stat sheet.
However some still question his maturity, shot selection, and the fact that he isn’t an elite athlete according to scouts.
Many believe Stephenson was just a darling of the New York media, and while that may be true to a certain degree, Stephenson is out to reverse the bad rep and prove his skeptics wrong.
The reason he is the most intriguing draft prospect is that he is a guy who is a top 10 talent floating on the first round bubble. There aren’t 30 better players in this draft than Stephenson, and he’s likely not going until at earliest the mid 20s.
Overall Stephenson is likely to be one of the most controversial players in the draft. But whichever team is getting him will likely take him in the late first round or early second, which means they’d be getting great value. With some coaching, mentoring, and some adjustments, don’t be surprised if Stephenson ends up being one of the most productive players in this draft.