For Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson, talent has never been the issue.
The former star at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, the same Brighton Beach program that once groomed Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, Stephenson was widely heralded as one of the most gifted high school basketball players New York City had ever seen.
A four-time city champion and two-time New York Daily News player of the year, Stephenson’s destiny seemed far more in line with Marbury’s than Telfair’s as the leader of the Railsplitters. And as one of the country’s most heralded and sought-after five-star recruits, his path to NBA stardom once looked like a virtual lock.
Unfortunately, maturity always has been something of a hang-up for the 22-year-old Stephenson, and for most of the last half-decade, his lack of composure off the court looked destined to complicate — if not totally derail — his NBA dreams on it.
But this year, Stephenson has had a breakthrough. He’s earned his way back into the good graces of Indiana coach Frank Vogel following a rocky first two seasons as a pro. And he’s finally putting his immense talent to use as a starter for the Pacers, who are preparing to face the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday.
Though he’s by no means a star, Stephenson’s tumultuous rise to relevance finally seems to be at least nearing the point most always felt it could. And that disorderly past? The people who knew him as a troublemaking high school star expect it to stay there.
“He had to sit those first couple years and show some patience, but as the games (this year) and the first couple series have progressed, he's shown that he's the total package,” Stephenson’s high school coach, Dwayne “Tiny” Morton told FOXSports.com. “Guys have different things in life that make them more mature, and I think Lance has definitely done that.”
The son of a construction worker and a cleaning woman for the city housing authority, Stephenson was raised in a rough Coney Island neighborhood but was largely able to stay out of trouble growing up — using hoops as an outlet to avoid the gang activity that was so prevalent in the area.
But during Stephenson’s junior year, things took a turn. The decline started in January 2008, when Stephenson earned a five-day suspension and missed two games following an altercation with teammate Devon McMillan that ended with both players being cut by shards of broken glass. However, Morton still contends that the altercation was blown out of proportion.
“The New York media is always bigger than the reality is,” Morton said. “It was just two friends fighting — not even fighting, just two friends having an argument.”
Things then got worse for Stephenson later that year, in October 2008, when Stephenson and teammate Darwin Ellis were arrested for allegedly groping a female student on the Lincoln High School campus. Stephenson would plead guilty to disorderly conduct the following summer, keeping him out of jail and allowing him to continue to pursue his basketball dream.
But the damage had been done, and Stephenson’s new reputation led many top programs to back off of their interest in Scout.com’s No. 9 overall recruit in the 2009 class. Stephenson eventually landed at the University of Cincinnati, where he played one year before declaring for the 2010 NBA Draft.
“I’ve often felt sorry for excellent athletes having everything under scrutiny,” Lincoln principal Ari Hoogenboom said. “If you do foolish things as a 17-year-old, as an 18-year-old, for many of us, it’s not a huge deal. When you’re an excellent athlete, it does become a huge deal and it becomes one more obstacle you have to overcome.”
The Pacers picked Stephenson in the second round that year, with the 40th overall selection, but less than two months later, Stephenson found himself on the wrong side of the law again when he was arrested for allegedly pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs, then slamming her head on the bottom step. The charges were later dropped, but the accusation represented yet another hit to Stephenson’s shaky reputation.
Once his rookie season finally rolled around, Stephenson’s hard-headed approach did little to endear him to his coaches and teammates at the NBA level, and by the end of the year — after various run-ins with Pacers veterans and one regrettable instance of using his phone on the bench during a game — he had been demoted to the end of the bench and was reportedly in danger of being released.
“I always used to say to Lance — and I say this to other athletes too — that everyone in the pros was a star in high school,” Hoogenboom said. “And I think the difficulty that a superb athlete like Lance has is that sometimes it comes so easy in high school that maybe you don’t have a need to establish the work habits that those of us who are less talented have to establish.”
In his second year, Stephenson finally began to get his act together. He played in 42 games after appearing in just 12 as a rookie and scored 22 points in his only start of the year, the Pacers’ regular-season finale. This season, Stephenson stepped into a starting role, in part because of the absence of star swingman Danny Granger, and in 78 games, Stephenson averaged 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds.
Now in the playoffs, Stephenson has truly blossomed, averaging 9.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, including a career-high 25 points in the Pacers’ Game 6 elimination of New York — Stephenson’s hometown team.
“He's letting the game come to him,” Morton said when asked what the difference has been for Stephenson. “The coaching staff has given him confidence that he's going to play even though he's not scoring a whole lot of points. The staff had done a great job of making him understand that.”
He’s also done everything he can to distance himself from the rambunctious teenager he used to be. And that, more than anything, could be the key to Stephenson finally realizing his immense potential on the court. He’s not there yet — and one solid year is no guarantee that he ever will be — but it’s a good start.
“You've got to give credit to the kid,” Morton said. “I bet when you were 17 or 18 years old, you probably had some things that you did that you don't want to talk about. Most of those things shouldn't even be aired. But right now, he's overshadowing everything he ever did before.
“He was always a big dreamer and a goal-setter. And it seems like he's finally doing exactly what he set out to do.”