Charlotte Hornets

Hornets’ Lance Stephenson on the verge of a breakout season

Lance Stephenson can remember well the moment he felt on top of the basketball world.

He was 12 years old, ranked the No. 1 sixth-grade player in the country by Hoop Scoop, a national basketball player-ranking service. Hoop Scoop editor Clark Francis said Stephenson was the best middle schooler he had ever seen.

“When I got 1, I was like, ‘Yo, I’m nice,’” Stephenson said. “...I always played two levels up. When I played with my age group it was like walking in the park. Going up for a layup was easy.

“From that day on, every time I played with my age group I was like, they’re too little for me. That’s when I knew I could be good.”

As a Coney Island teenager given the nickname “Born Ready,” he became New York City’s best high school basketball player. After a quick stop in college, he has toiled in relative obscurity in the Midwest up until last season with the Indiana Pacers.

Now, Stephenson, the Charlotte Hornets’ big free-agent signing this offseason, is poised for a breakout with his new team. But his talent has always been belied by his outbursts.

Reserved away from the court, Stephenson displays a passion on the floor that results in triple doubles and ankle-breaking moves – but also technical fouls and head-shaking antics.

More than basketball, he also wants to make movies and music. He just released a music video for his new rap song, a remake of the popular rap song, “Hot N---a.” He has ambitions of doing more songs.

But his love of basketball outweighs all, he says. Stephenson became one of the most improved players in basketball last season, and now he eyes an even bigger role with the Hornets, one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference.

“I mean I ain’t going to say I’m on top, but I feel like I’m close,” said Stephenson, who will join teammates in Asheville this week for the start of training camp. “If I just keep working hard I can be past the top. I want to be one of the best players to play the game. It’s not just being nice and a good player. I want to be the best.”

‘He Got Game’

Stephon Marbury was Stephenson’s idol growing up.

Marbury hailed from Coney Island, went to Lincoln High School and was named Mr. Basketball in the state of New York as a senior in 1995. After one season at Georgia Tech, Marbury was drafted fourth overall in the NBA draft.

“Growing up, Stephon was king in my neighborhood,” Stephenson said. “I had all his outfits. Just to see how hard he worked and how competitive he was and how many All-Star Games he made it to, how he played on the floor, it made me want to play like him or even better.”

In 1998, Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” sports drama was released, and to this day it’s Stephenson’s favorite movie. He can’t count the number of times he’s seen it.

In the movie, NBA star Ray Allen plays Jesus Shuttlesworth, the nation’s top-ranked basketball player at Lincoln High School who’s recruited by every major college basketball program in the country. It was a path Stephenson determined would be his, too.

“I was the same way,” said Stephenson, who would go on to play at Lincoln. “I was like, damn that’s me. I was looking at myself on TV. That’s how I felt.”

Stephenson’s tales from his teenage years have become Brooklyn hardcourt legend. At 14 and already 6-foot-1, Stephenson challenged O.J. Mayo, then the top-rated high school senior, during a basketball camp. Mayo said after the game it was the first time he had felt like “someone was coming after me.”

As a freshman in high school, Stephenson played with adults in the famed Rucker Park league, which earned him the nickname “Born Ready” by the courtside announcer. The next year he was the youngest of eight high school prospects featured in a documentary “Gunnin’ for That No. 1 Spot.”

Stephenson won an unprecedented four city titles while at Lincoln, and he was voted Mr. Basketball in New York his senior year after setting the state’s all-time career scoring record. He went to the 2009 McDonald’s All-America Game and surpassed what Marbury and current Oklahoma City guard Sebastian Telfair did while at Lincoln.

But trouble followed Stephenson. In 2008 he was suspended for a week from school for fighting a teammate. Later that year he was arrested for misdemeanor sexual assault for groping a female at school, and in 2009 he eventually pled to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

His involvement with his own web-based reality show “Born Ready” drew eligibility concerns. There were also questions when he and his family went to Under Armour headquarters, an apparel company founded by Maryland alumnus and booster Kevin Plank. Scholarships from top programs came and went for various reasons. Eventually, Stephenson signed to play for the University of Cincinnati, a program that had not gone to the NCAA tournament in four years.

Named the Big East Conference Rookie of the Year after averaging 12.3 points per game, Stephenson skipped his final three years of eligibility and declared for the 2010 NBA draft.

His maturity still lagged far behind his basketball talents, though.

“Because of who he was, he had been sheltered,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “He’s from a very close-knit family, and they tried to protect him, and rightfully so because of the hype he received at a young age. He hadn’t really been outside of his web, so to speak, where he had to meet new people and talk to new people. We spent a lot of time, just him growing up and meeting new people, trusting new people, talking to new people.

“He’s been through a lot for a young guy, so he’s got a lot of safeguards up. He doesn’t trust a lot of people, which is a good thing nowadays as a pro athlete and you’re meeting people. He’s definitely layered when it comes to that. Because he was such a big name at such a young age and some of the things that have gone on and the accusations he’s had to deal with.”

Twenty-four NBA teams passed on Stephenson, including his hometown Knicks at Nos. 38 and 39, before the Indiana Pacers drafted Stephenson in the second round with the 40th overall selection.

Struggles as a Pacer

Stephenson had never experienced anything like his rookie NBA season.

In the 2010-2011 season, Stephenson didn’t see action until late February in the Pacers’ 58th game. After 12 games and 37 points, Stephenson was benched for what was described in reports as “immaturity reasons.”

Clark Kellogg, a CBS Sports basketball analyst and the Pacers’ vice president of player relations from 2010 until this summer, said Stephenson was close to alienating his teammates because of his actions.

Kellogg said Stephenson didn’t handle constructive criticism well from coaches and teammates, he was late for treatments, he didn’t weight train or stretch the proper way, he talked during film sessions and he joked at inappropriate times.

“He didn’t take (getting benched) extremely well, but he knew that was what he had to do,” Kellogg said. “And I think basketball is extremely important to him, and therefore he had a chance, despite some of the friction he created early on, there was always a hope early on that at some point he would [understand] what he needed to change.

“Lance knows he has a giftedness for the game, and he realized after the first seven or eight months with us he was sabotaging it himself if he didn’t make the changes. And he started to do that immediately after his rookie season.

In Stephenson’s exit meeting with the Pacers after his rookie season, he admitted he had approached things the wrong way that year and made it clear he wanted to change.

“When you heard him say that, you knew this kid was going to have a chance,” Kellogg said. “And when he got the opportunity, he was able to show that his play warrants being a high-level NBA player if he stays the course.”

Stephenson played just half the season in his second year, but where he couldn’t get on the floor in Indiana, he could in Cincinnati.

Stephenson would drive nearly two hours back to his college campus to practice with the Bearcats once every other week.

“I had to sub him out, and he wouldn’t come out,” Cronin said. “Guys would say, ‘Coach, he’s not on our team, he won’t come out.’ But that’s him, though. He would play all night if he could. One thing the Pacers loved about him was, they could always find him. He was in the gym.”

Stephenson worked on his jump shot and pick-and-roll offense. In his third season he started in 72 games and averaged 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.

Last season, his fourth, he started in all 78 games he played. He averaged 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, led the league in triple-doubles with five and finished second in voting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.

“From Day 1 my rookie year, not playing and feeling like I should be out there on the floor and watching other guys that were ahead of me, I had to learn from it,” Stephenson said. “I watched my first two years, and I learned the game. I told myself when I get that chance to be on the floor, I’m going to try to prove everybody wrong and make sure coach lets me be consistently on the roster and play every game. I was just waiting for the opportunity where I could step up and be ready and prepared that whole time.”

That ultimate opportunity would come in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat and LeBron James.

Trying to get an edge

Stephenson was called for 14 technical fouls last season, the third-most in the NBA. But those didn’t make national headlines like his battles with James, the four-time NBA MVP.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, Stephenson brushed James’ face with his hand during a dead ball, walked into Miami’s huddle, stood over James for an extended period of time after James went to the floor and, in the most infamous antic of the NBA playoffs, blew in James’ ear in Game 5.

“Clearly there was great disappointment with that transpiring how and when it did. There’s no question about that,” Kellogg said. “To a man, I know his teammates, while continuing to support and embrace Lance like all good teammates do, they were disappointed in that. I know some expressed that to him. I know (team president) Larry (Bird) expressed it to him at the appropriate time.”

Stephenson said he wanted James and everyone else to know that if you’re going to beat him, it’s not going to be easy because of how competitive he is. It was his way of trying to get an edge over James, he would say.

His mother, Bernadette, said he gets his edge from her.

“I got it growing up in Brooklyn, and most people from Brooklyn have it in them. First you have the New York in you, then you have the Brooklyn,” she said. “It’s a good edge if you utilize it right.

“I think he uses it in a good way. He knows when to utilize it, especially on the court. It brings that competitive edge to him. You can’t teach that. That’s something that’s already in him.”

But with the advantage of hindsight, Stephenson admitted he needs to “stop all that other stuff and just play ball.” People don’t know Stephenson as the guy who averaged nearly nine points, seven rebounds and three assists, while pushing the Heat to seven games in the series, he said. They know him as the guy who blew in James’ ear.

“I feel like when I do something good, I don’t get the credit I’m supposed to get because sometimes I do a little bit of antics or stuff that I did with LeBron,” Stephenson said. “Sometimes other people don’t see the talent. People know me as the guy that did that to LeBron. They don’t know me as the guy that was being competitive with LeBron and got under his skin and made him play the best that he can play. That’s what people tend to see when they see me.”

A rap remake

The Pacers wanted to keep Stephenson this offseason, and they offered him a five-year deal worth $44 million. It was where he had grown up, and they had big plans for him, Pacers executives told Stephenson.

The Pacers even created a movie about Stephenson that they showed for him, his family and friends just after midnight of the first day of free agency.

But for a long-term commitment, Stephenson wanted more money. Meanwhile, the Hornets tried for restricted free agent Gordon Hayward, but he stayed with Utah when the Jazz matched the Hornets’ offer sheet.

The Hornets hadn’t shown much interest in Stephenson, but he was the best option left. The other top wing, Chandler Parsons, was a restricted free agent with the Rockets, and Houston did not match the Mavericks’ offer. Stephenson was on Dallas’ short list after Parsons.

So the Hornets’ front office and Stephenson’s group met in Las Vegas during the summer league. They struck a deal: a three-year contract worth $27.4 million with a team option in the third year. Stephenson’s price came down slightly, and he bet on himself that in three years as he hits the prime of his career, he’ll be among the NBA’s elite.

“That’s going to make me work even harder, because I want the whole NBA to want me when my next contract is up,” Stephenson said. “That’s why I feel like I have to prove myself.”

But Stephenson wants to do more than just play basketball. He wants to rap, as well. Two months before the season began, Stephenson released a rap song, called “Hot N---a,” a take on the rapper Bobby Shmurda’s song that spawned the popular “Shmoney Dance.”

Stephenson took the beat to the song and says in four hours he came up with his lyrics. He stripped Shmurda’s lyrics of misogyny and gun violence and replaced them with rhymes about his basketball talents, endorsements for his And 1 shoe company, reminiscing about watching Allen Iverson, his excitement to play with Hornets point guard Kemba Walker and more.

“Brooklyn-bred now I’m out in N.C.,” the end of the song’s first verse goes. “Me and Kemba in the backcourt n---as as dead meat/Pops held me, down kept me out the streets/They wonder how the rose grew up out the concrete

“I’ve been ballin’ hard since like the fifth grade/Watching A.I. gettin’ 40 with the French braids/Love Indiana, I’m gonna miss some good days/Charlotte Hornet, M.J. that’s a new way.”

The song uses the N-word nine times, down 13 from the original song. Although the word is commonly used in rap as well as in many professional sports team’s locker rooms that are predominantly African-American, Stephenson said he was cognizant of the message it might send to kids who view him as a role model.

This week he released the music video, which includes him driving a Rolls Royce, wearing a retro Larry Johnson jersey and doing a dance he created called the Born Ready Dance. He blanked out the nine times he used the N-word, acknowleding its offense to others.

Hornets general manager Rich Cho said last week that he hadn’t seen the video yet and didn’t have a comment on Stephenson doing the rap song.

Stephenson said, “It’s tough for us, people who are role models, because you can’t curse, you got to say the right thing all the time.

“When I first started doing it, there were curses in there. I was like man I can’t do this. I had to make it presentable so if a kid listened to it, like a kid looked up to me and their parents are like, that’s the dude you’re going to look up to? You got him cursing and saying all this stuff. So it’s for everybody’s ears.

“I just try to show the kids that growing up that there’s stuff better than drugs or killing each other. You got basketball, rapping, movies. They look at me like, how is Lance doing all this? They’ve known me since I was growing up, and they can say Lance can do all this? I can do this, too.”

Spectacular scorer

At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Stephenson offers toughness, skill and physicality for the Hornets on the wing, three elements the Hornets lacked last season.

“He’s going to have his chances in high pick and rolls and (isolations),” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “He can play both in the open court and half court. He’s going to have plenty of opportunity to score the ball.”

As Stephenson eyes a larger role, he creeps closer to the top among his peers just like he was in high school. His offensive game is spectacular with an ability to score creatively and like few others in the NBA.

When he was younger, he was better than everyone else. But that changed in 2008 when he tried out for USA Basketball’s U-18 team.

“Up to that point in Lance’s career, and this was a very young career at 17 years old, the ball had always gravitated toward his hands,” said Bob McKillop, long-time Davidson basketball coach who also coached the U-18 team. “When it was in his hands he was outstanding. But there was going to be a significant part of the game played without the ball in his hands because there were good players, and we needed players continuing to play when the ball wasn’t in their hands.”

McKillop and his staff cut Stephenson during the trials while fellow New Yorker and future Hornets teammate Kemba Walker made it. Stephenson’s skill didn’t outweigh the need for the ball to move in the offense and the importance of team chemistry.

Now in Charlotte with a chance to shine brighter than he has in the NBA, does the offense need to go through him?

“The offense is Big Al,” Stephenson said without pause, referring to Hornets center Al Jefferson. “Big Al is holding it down in the paint. I would definitely go to him first. I want to be a playmaker, a scorer, a rebounder, a defender. I want to do whatever to help the team.

“Big Al and Kemba, they’re unstoppable. I don’t want to say I want the game to go through me because we have other guys on the floor that can contribute, too. I want to be part of that. I want to be that guy to help the team win and do the dirty work to help us win.”

Mentioning Jefferson first says something about Stephenson’s development, Kemba Walker says.

“The first thing about maturity is understanding,” Walker said. “And in this league, when you have guys that buy into a team and what the coach is trying to do, your chances are very high to win.

“Especially because of what everyone says about him, for what everyone thinks about him, for him to say that, it goes to show what kind of person he is. Everyone sees antics and stuff and thinks he’s a bad person, but that’s not the case at all. He wants to win. We all want to win, and we brought him here to win.”

“We brought him here to showcase his talents, and I can’t wait to get it started.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer