Friday March 6th, 2015

NEW YORK—The fans clustered in a corner of the Barclays Center called out for only one player, and the player soaked in the voices. For Lance Stephenson, this was home. The Coney Island native, the Lincoln High School star will forever be revered in pockets of Brooklyn. Here, he is the state scoring champion. Here, he is a four-time PSAL titlist. Here, he is Born Ready. Here, the good significantly outweighs the bad, and always will.

Elsewhere? Not as much. Last summer, Stephenson was one of the more attractive free agents on the market. He was 23 and a budding All-Star, a defensive force with a rapidly improving offensive game. His ear blowing antics were a maddening but an acceptable tradeoff for his production. Indiana, the franchise that groomed Stephenson from an immature second-round pick, offered him a five-year, $44 million deal. He passed, opting for a three-year, $27 million offer from Charlotte.

It was a coup for the Hornets. Right up until it wasn’t. Stephenson was billed as an ideal fit. The Hornets, er, Bobcats were a warm and fuzzy story last season. They won 43 games, a 22-game improvement, and with a hobbled Al Jefferson gave Miami a few fits in an eventual first round series sweep. Stephenson’s playmaking was supposed to ease the pressure on Kemba Walker. His perimeter shooting was supposed to ease the burden on Jefferson. His defense was supposed to be a weapon for Steve Clifford, who lobbied for Stephenson as hard as anyone.

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To date, few of those expectations have materialized. To say Stephenson has been ineffective would be an arena-sized understatement. His scoring (8.6 points per game) is down and his field goal percentage (36.6 percent) and three-point percentage (14.8 percent) are in a free fall. He has been shoved onto the second unit and is often watching from the bench in the fourth quarter. Why? Charlotte is, on average, more than seven points per game worse when Stephenson is on the floor.

To Clifford, Stephenson is the victim of unrealistic expectations.

“A lot of this is totally off base among basketball people,” Clifford said. “He’s [24] years old. He’d played for one coach in one offense. This is Lance’s first time playing with new guys. His attitude has been fine. The expectations were a little out of whack.”

Clifford is right. Sort of. Stephenson thrived in Indiana’s system, playing off David West, enjoying the attention paid to Paul George and Roy Hibbert. In Indiana, Stephenson picked up two or three buckets a game off back cuts. This year, Clifford says, Stephenson is having to settle for pull up jump shots.

“I don’t think [expectations] are unfair,” Clifford said. “I just think it’s part of our league. I just think that because he played, and played well, by the way, in very big games, [the expectations are higher].”

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​And Stephenson has been far from Charlotte’s only problem. Injuries have ravaged the Hornets' lineup, from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to Al Jefferson to Kemba Walker, who was cleared this week to practice after missing all of February recovering from knee surgery. The inconsistent rotations have made a mediocre offense last season (No. 17 in efficiency) downright dreadful (No. 29) this year.

“It’s hard simply because we haven’t ever gotten to the playing groups,” Clifford said. “But that’s this league. A lot of teams are the same way. Ideally, for guys to play effectively every night, particularly younger guys, you want to get to your groups so they know who they are playing with at what times and what shots you are looking for most nights. It’s been a little bit of an issue.”

Added Jefferson, “Injuries happen. We haven’t been consistent.”

Still…Stephenson. Expectations were high, but they weren’t that high. Expectations didn’t make Stephenson come into the season out of shape. Expectations didn’t siphon Stephenson’s intensity early in the year. Expectations didn’t force Clifford to shift Stephenson to the second unit, turning the $9 million man into Gerald Henderson’s backup. Outside of the Indiana cocoon, away from the shadow of Larry Bird, the structure provided by Frank Vogel, the discipline demanded by West, Stephenson has been erratic. 

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“I don’t think [expectations] were too high.” Jefferson said. “Anytime you have a guy coming to a new team people will look for him to come in and save the day. All we ever wanted him to do is come in and be himself. This team was already on the rise when he came. We want him to help take us to the top. Some times things don’t necessarily work out at first, but you have to stay with it and continue to compete.”

The Hornets are trying to remain positive with Stephenson, if for no other reason than they have little other choice. In the woeful Eastern Conference, Charlotte (26-33) is in a strong position to make the playoffs (currently No. 8 heading into Friday's action). And they will need a focused Stephenson to do it.

"I need to learn to do better to help him,” Clifford said. “It’s never one thing, but we also, we have [23] games left, and if we’re going to make it we need a couple guys to emerge, and he may be that guy.”

He has been it before. As Stephenson maneuvered through the stands in Brooklyn on Wednesday, signing every autograph, posing for every picture, he felt the love of the crowd wash over him. As he headed towards the Hornets locker room, one picture taking fan bellowed, “We love you Lance,” to which Stephenson turned, smiled and saluted in the fan's direction.

Indeed, there are strong feelings for Stephenson in Brooklyn. Someday, the Hornets hope those feelings will emerge in Charlotte, too.

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