Since Lance Stephenson was a high school basketball prodigy in New York, his nickname has been “Born Ready.”
From what the Charlotte Hornets and their fans have seen so far, however, Stephenson is still working on getting ready to be an impact player on this team. It may come soon. But this isn’t just a “plug-and-play” sort of deal. Inserting Stephenson doesn’t automatically turn a 43-win team last season into a 50-win team this year, and to think otherwise is naive.
Stephenson was the Hornets’ prized offseason acquisition. The Hornets convinced him to come to Charlotte on a shorter-term, three-year deal rather than stay with Indiana for five more years. He said at his introductory news conference in Charlotte in July: “I am definitely a great player.”
At times, this is true. But Stephenson is not yet consistently great, and the three exhibitions he has played as a Hornet so far have been very uneven. He shot 2-for-10 Wednesday in the Hornets’ 20-point exhibition loss to Detroit (it felt more like 30) and rarely affected the game in any substantive way.
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“He’s had good moments, and there are times when you can tell there is a definite newness,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Stephenson. “People are going to have to be fair with him on this. Everyone is putting all these expectations on him, and he’s 23 years old. And he’s never been a go-to player. And he’s not 28 or 29. There are a lot of things that go with having that responsibility. He’s a work in progress.”
Said Stephenson after Wednesday’s loss: “I’m just learning game by game and trying to get better. I’m trying to get used to the plays and get adjusted to the team as quickly as possible. Today I missed a couple of shots and got out of my game. I’ve got to stay with it. That’s what preseason is for.”
Stephenson became well-known nationally earlier this year about the time he was blowing in LeBron James’ ear in the playoffs. But before that he had put together an enormous season for Indiana, one in which he led the NBA in triple-doubles and placed second in voting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
Clifford is integrating Stephenson carefully. He will start Stephenson, certainly, but the Hornets’ primary two offensive weapons won’t change. Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker remain the team’s purest threats to score.
“I think people are going to have to be patient with him,” Clifford said of Stephenson. “You can see his talent and his ability and he wants to do well ... He’s a good, good player. But he averaged 13 a game last year. This isn’t a guy who for eight years scored 22 a night.”
Which is fine. Jefferson is going to score 22 a night. Walker will be close to that.
What Stephenson must do is lead this team in is versatility. He has to be able to guard one of the other team’s top scorers, pass the ball well and especially rebound, because the Hornets look a little short (again) on rebounding to me.
Said Jefferson of his new teammate: “He’s finding his way. He’s trying to put his game into this offense. He can be a defensive playmaker and a scorer, though. He can rebound and make plays for other guys. It’s just a process for him. And once he establishes himself, I think he’s going to adjust very well.”