A lot has transpired in the Lance Stephenson
saga since we last checked in on him
at the McDonald's All-American Game last April. At that time, the question marks surrounding his attitude and off the court issues had soured much of the elite prep talent's recruiting interest, and his prospects for college basketball, let alone the NBA, seemed murky.
Appearing overweight, reinforcing the perceptions of his detractors with his play on the court, and facing sexual assault charges off it, the enigmatic young guard seemed positioned for failure. Enter the Cincinnati Bearcats and Mick Cronin. After committing to the school in late June, the all-time leading scorer in New York high school basketball history brought his cloud of controversy to southern Ohio.
Fast-forward six months, and it is hard to question Cronin's decision in the last bit. Cleared to play in early November, Stephenson has brought the Bearcat's a national notoriety that the program has severely lacked, without even having the opportunity to speak to the media. Looking substantially leaner than he was on the All-Star circuit, Stephenson has made his presence felt for the 6-3 Bearcats, showing off the talent level that made him a consensus top-10 recruit in his class, while playing far better team basketball than most expected. Though Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson
experiment certainly has had its benefits, from an NBA draft perspective, many of the questions about his game persist.
Imposing his strong frame on weaker players to the tune of almost 30 point per-game on the high school level, Stephenson has had moments of brilliance this season when putting the ball on the floor, but has had a hard time making adjustments to improve his efficiency. Permanently in attack mode on the offensive end, Stephenson's ball handling ability and solid frame allow him to make some impressive plays off the dribble, but many of the forced drives that he still converted in high school have turned into off balance floaters and blocked shots in the NCAA.
According to the data we have at our disposal, Isolation situations account for more than 30% of Stephenson's total possessions this season, and while he'll shake his man with a fancy array of hesitations and crossovers to create an occasional open lay-up, he only converts 37% of his field goal attempts in this fashion, with many of those forays to the rim coming at the expense of the flow of his team's offense.
Stephenson will occasionally turn his offensive creativity into terrific opportunities for his teammateshe has very nice court vision after all--but he still tends to force the issue excessively looking for his own shot. A key to Stephenson's long term development lies in his ability to move away from the tunnel vision that often leads to him dribbling the air out of the ball on the perimeter and missing the open man on the weakside when he gets into the lane.
On top of his tendency to want to play one-on-one, Stephenson has also been extremely eager to pull the trigger from the outside this season. Stephenson's Shot Attempt Breakdown certainly doesn't depict him as the power guard that he is, indicating that 59% of his total field goal attempts are jumpers, which he converts at a modest 28.3% clip. His 2.9 three-point attempts per-game and 15% conversion rate paint a similar picture. Extremely aggressive with his shot selection off the dribble and more than willing to take a shot early in the shot clock when the opportunities presents itself, Stephenson's shot selection remains problematic, especially when one considers that his lack of elite athleticism makes it hard for him to create separation for his pull-up game.
While both his polarizing presence in Cincinnati's offense and shot selection hurt his efficiency, there are certain virtues of Stephenson's game that are undeniable. He shows off NBA caliber scoring tools, looking comfortable taking his man off the dribble in either direction, making plays in transition, and effectively finishing around the rim in half court sets. Though his strength doesn't always help him as much when he's looking to go one-on-one as it used to, it remains an asset to him when he crashes the offensive glass something he's done very effectively this season, especially for a guard.
In addition to his offensive rebounding, Stephenson has also been a willing defender, applying token pressure at the very least, and appearing extremely capable defending the ball on occasion. Lacking a degree of lateral quickness and always too eager to use his hands, Stephenson does do a decent job getting a hand up when his man looks to shoot and makes an effort to recover once he's beat. Prone to focusing on his man rather than positioning himself to help his teammates, Stephenson would benefit greatly from taking things a bit more personally on the defensive end on a consistent basis, something that can probably be said about all freshmen.
Based on the humbled expectations he came into this season with after so many colleges shied away from recruiting him, Stephenson has certainly had a positive freshman year. He'll continue to face some criticism for his style of play, but for a player that accounted for essentially all of his teams possessions on the prep level, it wouldn't reasonable to expect a polar shift in his tendencies immediately.
A tremendously instinctive and natural scorer, Stephenson has proven that he can put points on the board in bunches, and if he can improves aspects of his game in the coming months, notably his jump shot and decision making skills, some teams may be willing to overlook his lack of athleticism and ball-dominant ways and select him as a high-risk, high-reward opportunity. Clearly an NBA-level talent and a likely one-and-done player, all of the strides Stephenson makes come with a big caveat, as his off-court behavior and attitude will be put under the microscope by NBA franchises before he's even placed on their boards. Depending on what those queries turn up, Stephenson clearly has the talent to land in the first round, but if no college (except Cincinnati) was willing to let him come play for them for free this summer, then there are no probably guarantees either that an NBA team will be willing to pay him to play for them.