With the state's all-time scoring record, four Public School Athletic League titles and two state championships under his belt, there was little left for Lance Stephenson to accomplish at Lincoln High School (Brooklyn, N.Y.) except to choose his college destination. That seemingly never-ending process finally came to an end for Stephenson on Tuesday when he signed a financial aid agreement with Cincinnati. (He was unable to sign a letter of intent because he made his decision after the late signing period concluded in May.)
Stephenson has been a fixture on both the New York City and national high school basketball scene since his junior high years. For the most part, he has lived up to his lofty reputation. He's a winner, and the type of player who wants the ball and delivers in crunch time. Stephenson's talent is undeniable, but he does have a few chinks in the armor that need smoothing out before he reaches his full potential.
This big, burly shooting guard is a natural scorer, who is always in attack mode on the offensive end. Stephenson loves having the ball in his hands. He is best at taking his strong body to the basket. There are few high school players out there who combine great strength with a lightning-quick first step to the basket like Stephenson does. In transition, he can get to the rim at will, often times working through contact and finishing at the foul line.
Stephenson does his damage off the dribble, and is primarily someone who beats his defender with the straight-line dribble-drive. Because he's so powerful, he can get close to the basket with not much work. Once there, he senses his scoring opportunities, and usually delivers the knockout punch. Stephenson has good vision, and is a willing passer when he sees the open man. He has shown the ability to give up his shot to an open teammate with a better look.
His points, first and foremost, come on drives to the basket, but beyond that Stephenson has displayed a consistent pull-up jump shot off one or two rhythm dribbles. While his 3-point shooting and overall range have improved, it is still an inconsistent facet of his game at this point, but there is no doubt that when he gets hot shooting the ball, defenders are forced to come out and guard him because he is one of the most difficult players in the country to check one-on-one. Take, for instance, a game televised on ESPN in December in which Lincoln took on nationally ranked Duncanville (Texas) High School. Stephenson had a second quarter no one will soon forget, scoring 19 points against a team featuring several Division I prospects.
When it comes to rebounding, Stephenson excels on the offensive glass. Because he is such a hungry scorer, he attacks the offensive boards, resulting in several second-chance points. He is stronger than most high school players, especially guards, and may be the best backcourt rebounder in the country. He is also a capable defensive rebounder, often grabbing errant shots and racing the length of the court for scores. It's no secret how exciting Stephenson can be in the open court.
Defensively, Stephenson has all the tools to be an absolute lock-down defender. When faced with a challenge, he is one of the best defenders in the country. His strength, size and warrior-like mentality make him capable of guarding from multiple positions on the floor. For example, if he could learn how to chase shooters off screens, with his size, he could block jump shots and harass scorers all over the floor. He could front a bigger post player, or even push players off the block, because of his strength. He could even guard a point or a wing off the dribble if he focuses on keeping them out of the lane. As he continues to develop on the defensive end, Stephenson could also be handed the responsibility of guarding the opponent's top scorer.
Although Stephenson is terrific off the dribble, he does have a tendency to over-dribble, which can have a negative effect on his team's offense. He kills any sort of offensive momentum because he tries to do too much. At times, he feels the need to hunt down a quick shot, rather than letting the scoring opportunities come to him out of the natural flow of offensive sets, reads or broken plays. Despite his solid mid-range game, he needs to learn how to pull up softer and stay in control of his jump shots to avoid drawing offensive charge calls. Stephenson must do a better job of working to get open shots, including coming hard off screens his teammates set for him. Overall, he needs to develop a better understanding of how to play without the ball in his hands.
Stephenson's future with the Bearcats
There are still some unresolved legal issues Stephenson must deal with before beginning his college basketball career. (July 15 is the next time he will face a judge on charges of sexual assault stemming from an incident in the fall.) From a basketball standpoint, Cincinnati is a good fit for Stephenson.
If Stephenson molds well with the other players and understands his role, he's going to be in a beneficial situation. Approaching this opportunity with the right attitude is going to be Stephenson's most crucial responsibility. With returning veterans on the Bearcats' roster, Stephenson may feel that he has to come in and prove something. Instead, he has to improve on his skill set.
Stephenson has growing to do, and Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, an established and successful coach, is a guy who can groom him and keep him grounded. As an assistant at Louisville and Cincinnati, Cronin has coached players of Stephenson's caliber in the past. From that experience, I am certain he will demand exceptional play from Stephenson without being demeaning.
Next season, the Bearcats could make a surge into the top half of the Big East. That would be a remarkable achievement, considering how void of talent the program was when Cronin took the job. Now he'll go into the 2009-10 season with Stephenson and returning standouts Deonta Vaughn and Yancy Gates (both double-digit scorers in 2008-09). Stephenson will be joined in the Bearcats' backcourt by sophomore point guard Cashmere Wright. Wright missed all of his freshman campaign with a torn ACL.
Paul Biancardi, who spent 2007-08 as an assistant coach on Rick Majerus' staff at Saint Louis University, is the national recruiting director for ESPN Scouts Inc. He has 18 years of coaching experience at the Division I level. He was an assistant at Boston University, Boston College and Ohio State before becoming the head coach at Wright State, where he earned Horizon League Coach of the Year honors in the 2003-04 season. He is on the selection committees for the Gatorade National Player of the Year award and the McDonald's All-American Game.