Lance Stephenson has been called a lot of things over four-plus seasons in the NBA:
A showman versatile moody a prankster.
Then he was called this recently by Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford: “A pleaser.”
For whatever difficulties Stephenson has had fitting in with the Hornets, neither Clifford nor his new teammates have said Stephenson hasn’t tried to blend.
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In some ways that’s been part of the challenge: One night he’ll be passive, like when he took just seven shots in a home loss to the Dallas Mavericks Nov. 17. Then he’ll shoot 5-of-15 four nights later in a home loss to the Orlando Magic.
Stephenson assumed when he signed a three-year, $27.4 million contract in July that his transition from the Indiana Pacers would be seamless. He had nothing to compare this to, having played his first four NBA seasons with the same team.
So a first month full of fits and starts (he finished November shooting 37 percent from the field and 18 percent from 3-point range) was illuminating.
“I thought it was going to be easy coming in. No; it’s tough learning a new offensive and defensive system,” Stephenson said.
“Now I’m playing on the left side (of the lane) after playing on the right side the whole season with the Pacers. I thought that would be easy, but I had to put in extra work – and I have been coming in early.”
That’s the pleaser side. For all the “Lance antics” chatter from the playoffs last season, Clifford has said he’s been studious about trying to fix what hasn’t worked.
They need him to be versatile and efficient. Stephenson’s gift is he can fill a box score. The first two weeks of the season he averaged more than 10 rebounds per game and he’s still a league leader at 7.6 boards per game.
He’s slightly behind point guard Kemba Walker for the team lead in assists (5.4 per game versus Walker’s 5.6).
Clifford never pictured Stephenson as a mega-scorer. Clifford has often said Stephenson chasing 25 points per night right now would be counter-productive.
But it’s the inefficiency so far that holds him back. Stephenson commits a team-high 2.6 turnovers per game. He averages 10.4 points per game, fourth on the team, with shooting percentages well down from last season in Indiana (when he shot 49 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range).
Clifford recently watched a couple of Pacers playoff games from last season, examining how Stephenson excelled. He noticed how much better Stephenson plays when he gets a couple of early fast-break baskets to develop rhythm and confidence.
“We’re trying to put in some things to get him up-court more before the defense is set,” Clifford said.
Told that, Stephenson said it’s not so much the coaching staff’s burden to find him fast-break baskets as it’s his responsibility to present himself as Walker’s target on the break.
“That’s more on me – keep getting in (better) shape every game,” Stephenson said. “Sometimes I get tired and don’t run the floor. I just need to find those easy buckets; not have to work hard for every bucket. I think that’s what I was doing the last month.”
Walker knows Stephenson’s game as well as any Hornet, having played against him all through high school in New York City. Walker considered it a breakthrough the way Stephenson played Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls.
Stephenson scored a season-high 20 points on 9-of-18 shooting. The difference? How frequently he got ahead of the Bulls’ transition defense for dunks and layups.
“He’s great in the open court,” Walker said. “As long as we can get him ahead of the basketball, I’m constantly looking for him.”
Walker saw a different vibe from Stephenson Wednesday that he hopes is the foundation for better times.
“The best thing about him is he was super-positive, playing with energy,” Walker observed.
“We need his energy. He pushed the pace, he got guys involved. He always makes the right plays. We’ve got to try our best to keep him like that; get him the ball in transition and let him make his plays.”