Lance Stephenson hits stride
At the beginning of the 2010 NBA pre-draft camp, Lance Stephenson, despite rumblings coming from several NBA analysts and experts that his stock was plummeting, was feeling himself.
"I wanna get drafted high, at least in the top 15," he said to me at the time. "I gotta show everybody that I'm ready. That I was born to play this sport."
Two words in that quote stand out. See, the "Born Ready" tag had been placed on him long before this yet the fact he found a way to work those words into our interview/conversation said something about where he was at that time of his life.
Where his mind was.
There seemed to be a part of Stephenson that felt justified in him believing he was just as special as the guys in that draft who were being considered greater than him.
In his mind they were OK, but they weren't him.
That was then.
As Stephenson enters the Eastern Conference finals three years deep into his NBA career, finally proving that he may have been "born to play this sport," there is a heavy mixture of hope and doubt surrounding what is about to happen next.
Storylines: Was the 25-point/10-rebound game Stephenson had to help eliminate the Knicks a notice, a warning of what's to come? Is Stephenson going to continue to be the player who made Danny Granger obsolete and expendable? Now that he's back in the spotlight will Stephenson's past come back to sabotage him? Are we about to find out what Lance Stephenson is really born ready for?
Three years ago Stephenson wasn't ready for this. He knew it. I knew it. It was about to be the next phase of the new phase of his life and all he wanted to do was get there. He wanted to leave behind the curse of being so gifted he was pegged for the NBA before high school, the drama that came from not shying away from the attention, the message sent when he was cut from the under-18 U.S. national team, the pressure associated with winning an unprecedented four NYC PSAL Class AA titles, a misdemeanor sexual assault charge that led to a guilty plea of disorderly conduct, a forgettable one-and-done season at Cincinnati and a canceled web series bearing his "Born Ready" alias.
All Lance wanted to do at that point was ball. Pro basketball was finally about to be his saving grace. His freedom. It was all finally about to happen.
But his road ran through perdition. He watched Wall, Cousins and Turner get love and accolades that he didn't while averaging 10 minutes and 2.8 points on .354 shooting per game in his first two seasons coming off the Pacers' bench. He saw players he once shared photo shoots and magazine covers with like Brandon Jennings and Ricky Rubio get shine that was originally reserved for him.
And while he watched players like Henry and Al-Farouq Aminu and Wesley Johnson, who were drafted before him, fading into the same obscurity for which he seemed to be headed, Stephenson was forced to witness Paul George -- right in front of him, every day -- become Paul George.
Knowing in his mind that the new "No. 1 spot" on this Pacers team was his to begin with. It was his to inherit. That's why Larry Bird drafted him, took a chance on him when 29 other teams and 39 other draft selections thought different.
But Stephenson's heart knew different.
While the mind plays tricks, the heart pumps blood. While tricks are for kids, adolescents, immature individuals who fail to grow up, blood is what turns boys into men. What circulates through our bodies, teaching ever more the longer it runs through our veins.
In order for Stephenson to discover his basketball destiny in the NBA he was going to have to leave his blood -- and everything that came with it -- on the court. His passion, his love, admiration, respect, honor and reverence for the game was going to have to all come out -- all at once.
"In high school," he said after Game 1 in the Knicks series, "I used to just go and bully everybody. Everybody is physical in the NBA and my size, so you have to be smart and you can't force everything and that's what I had to learn to play in the NBA."
It took three years. But at least Lance Stephenson is no longer waiting.
"I'll say this," Michael Grady, co-host of "The Grady & Big Joe Show" on ESPN1070 The Fan in Indianapolis and the P.A. voice of Pacers home games, told me, "Paul George may be the NBA's Most Improved Player, but Lance Stephenson is the most improved player on the Pacers. Paul has been a regular rotation guy/starter for his entire career; Lance was only seen during blowouts or when LeBron James was missing clutch free throws in last year's playoffs. Today Lance is such an important part of the offense [from a tempo standpoint] that I believe most fans would rather keep Lance in the starting lineup next season leaving Danny Granger on the bench. That's how big Lance has been."
But how big will he be? Will he be big enough for this next episode?
Stephenson's Saturday 11 p.m. post-Knicks series win tweet gave further and more direct insight to where he is right now in his basketball life: "I'm so blessed I want to thank GOD,my family, my kids, my team, LARRY BIRD, pacers fans and everyone that believed in me. Thanks"
Praise be. I only hope that going into this series against the Heat -- and the next phase of his career -- Stephenson fully understands that being "blessed" and being "ready" are two totally different things.
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