INDIANAPOLIS - "Born Ready?"
Maybe the nickname fit Coney Island's Lance Stephenson back in the day when he was dominating older players in the Rucker League and leading Lincoln High to a record four straight PSAL Class AA titles. Physically, he truly was a man among boys as a teenage basketball phenom.
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So, when a Rucker League announcer bestowed the "Born Ready" nickname upon him, Stephenson not only basked in the glow, he adopted the playground persona as his own. The expectations were reinforced in an online documentary by that title, chronicling his junior year of high school.
As it turned out, Stephenson wasn't ready to live up to the Internet hype. He didn't dominate in the one season he spent at Cincinnati; he fell to the second round of the 2010 NBA draft, and he more or less disappeared on the Indiana Pacers' bench his first two seasons.
Only this season has Stephenson emerged from the bog of self-doubt and self-inflicted setbacks in which he was mired to become the starting shooting guard for the Pacers as they advanced to their current Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series against the Knicks. In danger of giving new meaning to the term "one-and-done," Stephenson learned to listen to coaches who know it takes more than raw talent to make an NBA career.
"Coming from New York and being in the spotlight and everybody knows you and all the cameras are following you, you feel like you're bigger than everyone," Stephenson said Saturday before Game 3. "I came to school [at Cincinnati] and then I came here, and I didn't listen to no one because I thought I was higher than everybody.
"I had to humble myself, and it made me a better player. It was definitely tough. I thought I knew it all, but when I got here, there was more to the game that I didn't know about. It took awhile to adjust."
At Lincoln, it was impossible to imagine Stephenson struggling on a basketball court. He followed Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair in the line of succession and outdid both, finishing with a New York State high school record of 2,946 points.
"He wasn't difficult to coach," said Lincoln coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton. "He loves competition. Sebastian came right before him, and it made him go even harder. His confidence was so high. He never saw a game he couldn't win. He was very physically dominant."
When Stephenson got to Cincinnati, physical Big East defenses that sagged and took away his room in the paint caused him to struggle shooting. He averaged 12.3 points but shot only 21.9 percent from three-point range. Mick Cronin said Stephenson faced "unrealistic expectations" that were magnified by social media.
"Because of who he was in the ninth grade, he was the first Internet sensation with YouTube and all that stuff," Cronin said. "The year he had with us, that was the issue. He didn't know how to deal with struggles on the court. He was outmanned at Indy. His game wasn't ready."
Jumping to NBA
Cronin said Stephenson knew he would benefit by staying in college, but his decision was based on economics to help his family. Cronin, who remains in contact with the Pacers and plans to attend Game 4 Tuesday, told Pacers scout Kevin Mackey, "Lance is a hard worker. He'll grow up and mature, and he'll eventually make it."
But the maturation process was difficult for a playground prodigy. Stephenson clashed with coaches and teammates. "The first year was really about learning professionalism and how to work day-to-day," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "Make sure you're on time, how to carry yourself in the locker room, how to do stuff the trainers want, having a professional demeanor in practice. He grew a lot in his first year."
Stephenson made just 12 appearances as a rookie. His refusal to run plays as called so angered veteran teammates that he reportedly nearly came to blows after a game with star forward Danny Granger.
"Being the rook, you have to listen to the vets and the older guys," Stephenson said. "Whenever they tell you something, you have to say, 'Yes, sir.' No talking back. I wasn't that type of guy. I was the one that would talk back. I learned the hard way. I think I'm smarter now that I'm a third year guy."
Pacers assistant Brian Shaw, who has worked constantly with Stephenson to develop his shot and his understanding of the NBA game, said the breakthrough came late last season. A couple starters were injured, and Shaw recommended that Vogel start Stephenson, who responded with 22 points in the season finale against the Bulls.
"That was the first time he had a real dose of what it's like to play that position, where you're counted on to produce points, but you're also guarding usually the most potent scorer on the other team," Shaw said. "That's where he started to grow and see what it took."
Shaw said Stephenson arrived in the NBA with "that New York chip on his shoulder from Day 1 . . . We watch a lot of film and point out his mistakes. No one has ever made him accountable for those things on the court. Because he was always the most talented guy, I'm sure some of his coaches let him get away with some things."
If Stephenson wasn't ready when he entered the NBA, he learned the value last summer of hard work and preparation. Just before training camp opened, the Pacers learned Granger would be out for the season, forcing them to move Paul George to small forward and creating a vacancy in the starting lineup at shooting guard.
Stephenson gets shot
This time, Stephenson was ready. He delivered 8.8 points per game, 3.9 rebounds and shot 46 percent from the field and a respectable 33 percent from three-point range.
"I felt like I was always ready, but I had to learn the game a little bit more and be smart on the floor and be helpful to my teammates and not be the one that brings my teammates down," Stephenson said. "I just needed the opportunity."
Shaw says Stephenson still must grow into his nickname. "He definitely has to find his identity on this level," Shaw said. "He always says to call him 'Born.' I said, 'I'm not going to call you 'Born' until you're ready, and you're not ready yet.
"Guys have nicknames -- 'Air Jordan, King James.' But they earn it on this level. In New York and on the playgrounds, yeah, he might be 'Born Ready' there. I'm not ready to crown him as 'Born Ready' on this level quite yet. But he's getting there."