“I didn’t let the game come to me,” Stephenson said after Charlotte’s 96-93 loss to New York. “I just tried to make something happen. I let the game come to me the last two games and I ended up doing nothing so I’ve got to just play more aggressive, be in attack mode, get other players involved and be in the right spots at the right time.”
A tentative Stephenson lacked any offensive rhythm from the field and shot 22 percent (4-18) in Charlotte’s first two games. The lowlight came when coach Steve Clifford benched Stephenson for the remainder of Saturday’s game against Memphis at the 4:13 mark in the third quarter. His 14 points Sunday night marked his first double-digit scoring game of the season.
That’s not the start you want from your prized free agent coup.
According to a source close to Stephenson, he wasn’t happy at all with the decision and felt he could have made a significant difference as the Hornets scored a woeful 69 points in a two-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
However, Stephenson took the benching in stride and put it in his rear view mirror when asked about his adjustment to Charlotte on Sunday.
“It’s tough, but it’s part of being a pro,” Stephenson said. “Learning the system, learning new guys, not getting frustrated, keep playing through my mistakes and just trying to get other people involved. I play through instincts and when my players learn my instincts we’ll be a better team.”
Through three games, it appears coach Clifford has a much shorter leash with Stephenson and letting him play through his mistakes than coach Frank Vogel did in Indiana. Stephenson also had the unwavering support of Larry Bird, who mentored Stephenson like a young protégé summoning the guard to his “Bird Cave” as I documented in a previous SheridanHoops column.
While Michael Jordan has expressed praise for Stephenson, it remains to be seen if he can be the mentor Bird was for his new enigmatic star.
In Charlotte, Stephenson must learn how to play cohesively with a fellow New York City point guard who has a similar game, Kemba Walker.
“We’re similar, he’s just in a little body,” Stephenson said. “He’s a great point guard, he’s smart with making decisions, he’s a winner and when you need that big shot, he’s there to make that. Just being on his side and being on this team is incredible.”
Walker represents a stark contrast to Stephenson’s previous backcourt mate in Indiana, George Hill.
Walker flourishes with the ball in his hands while creating his own offense with a deadly step-back dribble at the top of the key and crossover to penetrate into the paint.
Hill is a solid shooter capable of freelancing without the basketball around the perimeter, which freed Stephenson to dominate the ball as the primary playmaker.
I asked Walker what’s the biggest thing the two guards must learn to do in order to form an effective tandem.
“We’re fine,” Walker replied. “It’s not just me and him, it’s everyone. We’ve just got to learn how to play off Al (Jefferson), that’s what it is. We’ve got to all learn how to play inside-out.”
Jefferson is a throwback player who posts up with his back to the basket using an assortment of up-and-under counter moves thanks to elite footwork and hook shots with a soft touch after catching the ball on either block.
Jefferson, a plodding big man, rarely rolls to the basket freely due to his lack of athleticism. While Jefferson has shown the occasional ability to leave the paint and hit a 15-foot jumper around the perimeter, he is generally reluctant to do so.
In contrast to Indiana’s David West, Charlotte lacks a big man who can flourish with Stephenson in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop plays that he excelled with as a Pacer.
“Their starting lineup has no shooting,” one Eastern Conference scout told SheridanHoops. “Last year Josh McRoberts spaced the floor for them, but now you can really pack the paint against Charlotte. The Pacers last year had great spacing with Paul George and George Hill as strong 3-point shooters, and David West had good range. Lance just doesn’t have the same driving lanes in Charlotte.”
Another scout believes Stephenson may wish he never left the Pacers by the end of the season.
“When you’re the third option it’s easy to excel,” another Eastern Conference scout told SheridanHoops. “Coming to Charlotte, he’s more of a marked man. He probably thinks he’s better than he really is. When the tide rises, all boats rise. Indiana was winning and everyone looked good.”
Coach Clifford believes Stephenson can eventually have a similar role with the Hornets once he gets fully acclimated to the system on both sides of the court.
“Lance averaged 13 (points) a game last year,” Clifford said. “I watched all of his playoff games. He was probably their fourth guy that they went to so this is new for him. I think as many similarities as there are defensively, there are things that are different offensively. That’ll take some time.”
What makes Stephenson so valuable in the eyes of Clifford is his versatility.
“I think he has the ability to play well in all three aspects of the game,” Clifford said. “He’s already rebounded well, he has the ability to defend well and he’s a handful in the pick-and-roll. I think for a wing player that’s his uniqueness – to be able to play exceptionally well in all three areas.”
Clifford was also quick to defuse any possible notion of some sort of rift between he and his guard, saying both spoke privately about the benching to clear the air.
“I think that the one misnomer is this – he’s 23 years old and developing into a good player,” Clifford said.
The key for Stephenson has always been harnessing his unique talent on a consistent basis.
Despite the loss to the Knicks, Stephenson posted his best all-around game of the season with 14 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and three steals.
“I’m getting comfortable now,” Stephenson said. “You see I play a little bit better now and I’ve just got to keep being consistent and bring something to the table every night.”
Stephenson must find his niche as a complement to the bruising Jefferson on the block and the closer in Walker down the stretch as a go-to player in the intermediate quarters, a lockdown defender on a nightly basis and a playmaker.
If Stephenson can continue to scratch the surface of his potential and realize it, Charlotte will do the same and become serious contenders in the East.