Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lance Stephenson may be the most talented player at the USA U18 National Team Trials, but he is also the most enigmatic.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Stephenson has mixed brilliant play, especially on the offensive end, with scowls, flashes of frustration and behavior that is viewed by the coaches as antithetical to the team concept.
On one occasion during the trials at the Verizon Center, head coach Bob McKillop pulled Stephenson aside in the middle of a scrimmage — in full view of players, coaches and the media — and whispered firmly into his ear. On another, McKillop unloaded a series of expletives in Stephenson’s face after he hissed at one of his teammates during a drill.
“I think he has a chance to be a superb, superb player,” said McKillop, the Davidson coach. “A lot of times guys with his level of talent don’t have the competitive fire that he has. But the competitive fire burns other ways, too, and if he can channel that competitive fire completely into his performance, he can be very special.”
After Stephenson had a rough morning session on Wednesday, McKillop ate lunch with New York recruiting analyst Tom Konchalski, who has known Stephenson since the fourth grade, when he was impressed by the young man’s firm handshake and direct eye contact; Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, head of the USA Basketball Men’s Collegiate Committee; and Sean Ford, the assistant executive director for USA Basketball. Stephenson was a primary subject of discussion.
Konchalski then pulled Stephenson aside before the afternoon session and offered some pearls of wisdom.
“Lance Stephenson is not a bad kid,” Konchalski said of the Brooklyn native and rising senior at Lincoln High School, the same school that produced NBA players Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. “He wants to be a great player. He has bad body language but he’s not a bad kid. What’s going to make him ultimately successful in this game and in life is how he deals with frustration and adversity. And half of his body language is a result of when he’s not playing well, when his shot isn’t dropping, when he’s not being productive or whatever. Part of it is directed at not getting calls when he goes to the basket and gets fouled, when teammates make mistakes and things like that. But you gotta deal with frustration and if he wants to be a great player, he’s gotta learn that failure’s gotta become fertilizer. He’s gotta learn from them, and he’s gotta turn every negative into a postive. And he’s gotta fight through that frustration and just play. He should be, whether he starts on this team or not, he should be the leading scorer.”
Konchalski also spoke often to Lance Stephenson Sr., who is actively involved in his son’s life and recruitment and also serves as his AAU coach with the new Raising Champions teams. The family agreed to allow Lance to be the subject of a documentary entitled “Born Ready,” yet Konchalski thinks Lance needs time to be a normal teenager.
“No, it’s not good,” Konchalski said of the documentary. “It’s not healthy.”
He added: “He’s been living in a fishbowl all these years. Let him be a kid; he’s 17 years old. (Basketball) is almost like a job. And I think he loves playing basketball. But I think when he doesn’t meet with the success that’s expected of him, that’s frustrating.”
McKillop has been very clear in his desire to see this team play unselfishly and as a unit so it can compete against international teams from Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere when the FIBA Americas U18 Championship begins July 14. He has expressed frustration with Stephenson’s inclination to hit the “homer” instead of the “single,” such as when he forced a drive to the hoop instead of taking a 12-foot jumper.
“He showed the great scoring ability he has,” the coach said. “I want him to catch-and-see, rather than catch-and-dribble. It’s a habit he’s had for, I suspect, many, many years because the first thing he does when he catches is, he dribbles. I think he understands that he’s got to correct that. He’s also unselfish. With those two qualities, seeing the court and being willing to pass, I think if he catches and sees, he puts himself in a position to capitalize on those talents. Plus, it enhances his other abilities to score. So now he’s more than a threat with the ball on the floor, he’s a threat holding the ball. And I think that’s just going to accelerate his development as a basketball player.”
Still, it is Lance’s raw strength when he drives to the rim that makes him such a difficult player to defend. He simply overpowers defenders on the way to the basket. He is also capable of hitting from the outside and has devoted himself to improving his ballhandling skills, as evidenced by his time last week at the Steve Nash Nike Skills Academy.
He could be a big-time scorer if he can buy into the team concept, but he admits it’s difficult because he is surrounded by talented players and is being asked to do things he never had to do before.
“It’s a lot different,” Lance said. “Everybody’s good here. Everybody’s playing hard. Everybody’s trying to make the team, so everybody’s trying to impress all the coaches. So everybody’s playing hard, even if they have to foul, they’re going to do it. So that’s why I think it’s tough for everyone here.”
College seems almost a distraction to the players at the trials, yet Stephenson listed Kansas, Tennessee and Memphis as his favorites, while his father lists UCLA, USC, Kansas, Memphis and St. John’s and says he prefers UCLA.
For now, though, Stephenson is determined to help his country and takes pride in putting on the USA Basketball jersey.
“It’s not all about sneaker camps or LeBron camp or any other camp,” he said. “It’s more about playing for your country and doing something that’s really important for other people.”
(Photos courtesy USA Basketball, The Washington Post)
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.