Lance Stephenson is the excitable sort, and there will be plenty of reason for him to be excited Wednesday.
For the first time since signing with the Charlotte Hornets over the summer, Stephenson is returning to Indianapolis to play against his former team, the Pacers. That’s where he grew from a second-round pick into a budding star over his first four NBA seasons.
“It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be fun,” Stephenson said. “I’m very excited, happy to be going home. Well, not home, but Indiana, to see where I really grew up and learned the NBA basketball game. It will be fun to see all the fans.”
It’s hard to predict just how those fans will greet him. Stephenson’s edgy, flashy personality made him popular, but he did turn down Indiana’s contract offer to sign a three-year, $27.4 million deal with the Hornets.
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The Pacers reportedly offered him a five-year contract worth $44 million. For Stephenson to sign a contract that long, he wanted more money than President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird was willing to offer. So Stephenson took the shorter contract from the Hornets, betting he’ll raise his market value as a free agent in the summer of 2017.
How will Pacers fans view him? As a fond memory? As a deserter?
“I’m sure it will be a love-hate kind of thing,” Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing said. “I think he’s happy here even though he’s not playing particularly well, and the team is not playing particularly well. He has a lot of friends over there. We were able to play them in the preseason so the awkwardness should be gone. It will be all about how the fans receive him.”
Stephenson has been up and down so far with the Hornets. He’s been the best rebounding guard in the NBA this season (9.2 per game), but his offense has been mediocre. He’s averaging 9.5 points per game and shooting 37.8 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range. He averages a team-high 2.7 turnovers.
That’s nothing close to the kind of impact the Hornets envisioned when they pursued him after the Utah Jazz matched Charlotte’s offer sheet for Gordon Hayward.
Stephenson had a good run in Indiana as a big part of teams that went to the Eastern Conference finals the past two seasons. He’s known as both a fierce competitor and a playful guy, the one who blew in LeBron James’ ear, looking to throw James off his game during the playoffs last season.
Will coach Steve Clifford address this game with Stephenson in advance of tipoff?
“Lance and I have had plenty of conversations about how he should express his competitiveness,” Clifford said. “He knows to be focused on what he has to do at both ends.”
Stephenson acknowledged how emotional this game might be.
“I was really into it with the fans,” he said. “They really believed in me and we connected.”
His former teammates expect Stephenson to live up to his “Born Ready” nickname Wednesday.
“I’m sure he’ll be as entertaining a guy as he always has been,” Pacers forward Chris Copeland told Indianapolis media. “We all know about his antics, but he was just an amazing talent, honestly. He brought a lot to us from an energy standpoint. I always respected him as a player and learned a lot from him last year.”
Stephenson’s former coach, Frank Vogel, sounds ready for anything.
“With Lance, the motto is always expect the unexpected,” Vogel said. “I think he’ll get a great applause, and he should. He gave us a lot of memorable moments and was a big part of what we did the last few years. We had a lot of success with him here. He’ll always be part of the family. I expect the crowd to embrace him.”