The unlikely rise and fall of Lance Stephenson

We are in mid-February, the busiest time of the year for NBA front offices. As the trade deadline approaches, teams hurry to add the one last player to make a playoff run or to finally trade away their star player for a bunch of assets. While the world is still waiting for the biggest splash to be made, today already had quite an announcement in store: The Minnesota Timberwolves have signed Lance Stephenson to a 10-day contract. Usually these short term contracts don’t get a much attention, but this one has created a lot of buzz. Of course it has, because the Wolves are getting one of the most polarizing players of the sport back onto the court. Only a couple of years ago Stephenson was a vital part of a contending team and in the conversation for the All-Star team. After a dramatic turn of events, this might well be his last shot at returning to the NBA.

From humble beginings

Coming out of college in 2010, Lance Stephenson’s entry could not have been more quiet. He had to wait until the second round of the draft to hear his name called by Indiana.  Behind Danny Granger and fellow Rookie Paul George his rookie year went as expected: The Cincinnati product only appeared in 12 games all season playing roughly 100 minutes combined. As his role didn’t change in year two, ‘Born Ready’ seemed destined to go down the path of most second-round picks and spend the rest of his career overseas or in the D-League. Then Danny Granger suffered the devastating injury that was going to destroy his own, but safe Stephenson’s career. With Indiana’s best player gone for the entire 2013 season, Stephenson was made the starting two guard. For the first time he really played and really didn’t disappoint. 9p 4r 3a – not a bad stat line for a player taking his first steps on the NBA’s big stage. Indiana advanced to Eastern Conference finals that year, it was in this national spotlight that the Lance Stephenson we know was born.

A short lived prime?

Indiana played the Heat, of course led by LeBron James, and ended up losing in a hard fought series after seven games. Game five gave us the moment which for many defined the player Lance Stephenson. The Pacers were a pesky opponent for the Big Three, but Lance took it to another level. He disturbed the Heat’s huddles, talked trash to coach Eric Spoelstra and really got tangled up with LeBron. Most famously, he provokingly blew into the King’s ear, in a scene that stuck with many NBA fans. He earned the image of a player who gives his all on the court, often going that one step too far. The following and final season of his rookie deal was a career year: He put up career-highs in nearly all statistical categories. Nevertheless, Indiana decided to part ways with their Shooting Guard. What exactly caused Pacers’ president Larry Bird to choose not to extend Stephenson’s contract remains doubtful; perhaps his difficult character paired with the prospect of spending big on him and George in the same offseason. But there is little doubt that his failure to stay in Indiana caused his career to derail before it had truly started.

Four teams in three seasons

After an excellent last season with the Pacers, a number of teams tried to add Stephenson to their roster. In the end, the Charlotte Hornets signed him to a three-year $27 Million contract. The only year he actually played there was underwhelming, to say the least. The Lance we knew from Indiana was gone, his abysmal stats in Charlotte were topped by an overall shooting percentage of 39.3% and a staggering 17% from three-point range. Nobody was really surprised when the Hornets desperately tried to end the failed experiment by sending him to the Clippers in a 2015. From Los Angeles he went to Memphis and from Memphis to New Orleans, in ever diminishing roles. After last season no team showed any interest in picking him up. And so the kid that excited the nation and went toe-to-toe with LeBron James hit rock bottom. Now Lance Stephenson will be back. While he has already proven his talent, it will be exciting to see how much of ‘Born Ready’ is still left.

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