During his eight-year playing career, Lance Stephenson has steadily carried the reputation of being one of the most polarizing players, and personalities, in recent NBA history. From his infamous on-court antics with now teammate, LeBron James, to his face palming decision making and dribbling exhibitions, Stephenson has drawn the ire and cult status not only across the league, but among his own team’s fanbases.
Yet, as he is about to enter the 2018-19 season now as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and as James’ ally, there are early indications that he is working on tempering his hijinks and focus instead on simply fitting in.
Recently, Scott Agness of The Athletic caught up with Stephenson and his basketball skills trainer, Rob Blackwell, to find out what the eccentric wing has been working on in the offseason in preparation in playing alongside James in the upcoming campaign, and the responses were encouraging:
“It was mainly about understanding more than anything,” Blackwell explained. “He’s a fantastic jump-shooter. In his mind, though, that is not his first option. His first option is to attack the basket. His second option is how bad can he make the defender look. [laughs] And his third option is how can he get the crowd excited on the way down the court after he scores.
“Lance is big on how his personality drives his game. We give him credit for being a really, really outstanding basketball player and to keep his focus on that — and less on the antics and the personality stuff.”
Blackwell’s focus on helping Stephenson in “understanding” and limiting the “personality stuff” is an unusual point of emphasis from a skill’s coach — but in reality — is crucial in Stephenson’s case.
The Lakers presumably did not sign Stephenson to shoulder the facilitating or primary ball-handling duties with James, and the number of other able players, already on the roster. Rather, they are expecting him to fill a defined and limited role — not a persona.
Blackwell’s approach in helping Stephenson in becoming a more self-aware player at this stage of his career has also come in cohesion with emphasizing the importance of his jump shot.
In a career full of high usage and assist rates, Stephenson is accustomed to both having the ball in his hands and attacking the rim (where 35 percent of his attempts came last season), a volume he’s unlikely to receive with the Lakers next year.
Stephenson has never been a decorated three-point shooter (career 30.3 percent) but he has also has never provided a substantial full-season sample (career average 2.1 three-point attempts a game). This is something Blackwell harped on as well, also detailing how playing with James will create more good opportunities for Stephenson:
“His shot is sound. I just don’t think it’s his first option,” Blackwell said. “So what we did was try to make him focus on the shot being his first option. His first option has been to put the ball on the floor and take his guy. That’s always his first option. He passes up so many wide-open shots as we went through video.
“We felt like he’s going to get a lot of spot-up opportunities playing with LeBron and playing with those guys who stretch the floor and rely on him to be able to catch-and-shoot and knock down shots, as well as be a tough defender.”
Blackwell’s evaluation of Stephenson’s shot profile is correct. In his career, Stephenson has been primarily a slasher who favors working from the midrange, while consistently being near the bottom of the league in three-point frequency.
Stephenson’s hesitancy, and downright refusal, to let it fly from three when given the opportunity is exemplified in only once posting a shot frequency of 30 percent or higher from 3-point range during a season (good for only the 32nd percentile among wings in 2012, according to Cleaning the Glass).
Functionality wise, Blackwell believes Stephenson’s shot mechanics are “sound” and it is only a matter of rewiring his offensive priorities. And while there is not much in terms of past statistics to support Blackwell’s theory, having a player like James will undoubtedly create more, and easier looks for Stephenson this season.
Blackwell’s work in helping make Stephenson’s jumper his “first option” could ultimately go a long way in harnessing and reigning in his minutes on the floor as he will not be given the offensive responsibilities in years’ past, which in turn will lessen the chances of a frivolous possession. If Stephenson’s shots also drop a bit more, all the better.
Until those changes happen, though, it’s wiser to assume Stephenson will most likely not be a drastically changed player this season with the Lakers. Fans need to brace themselves for the knowledge that Stephenson is just likely to end up on Sportscenter’s “Top 10” as he is to make an appearance on “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” but if he can somehow find a proper balance and accept his role — and hit a few open threes — then there might be hope for his first Lakers campaign yet.
You can find Alex on Twitter at: @AlexmRegla