Lance Stephenson: 'Before I retire I want an NBA ring'
In our exclusive interview, the nine-year NBA veteran discusses the NBA G-League, playing in China and battling LeBron James with the Indiana Pacers.
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Lance Stephenson is back on the court, and only a step away from returning to the NBA.
The former Indiana Pacers guard was selected by the Grand Rapids Gold with the 13th pick of the G-League Draft on October 23, and will play for the Denver Nuggets affiliate.
Stephenson is a nine-year NBA veteran and has played for seven teams in the league, most notably the Pacers, who drafted him in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft.
A fierce competitor and entertainer on the court, he is hoping for another shot in the league at the age of 31 after last playing in the 2018-19 season for the Los Angeles Lakers, the current second-favorites in the sports betting for the NBA title.
Speaking exclusively to Betway, Stephenson says he is excited to have an opportunity to show what he can do and to prove that he still has plenty left in the tank.
“I feel great,” he says. “I'm just happy that I'm finally off the couch and able to play and get my feet wet. I'm very excited to get in there.
“My body feels amazing. I don't feel like an older guy, I still feel like a young guy. So I think I've got a couple more years left.”
Stephenson worked out for 10 teams during the offseason as he looked to secure an NBA contract after a year out, having last played in China for the Liaoning Flying Leopards. He received interest, but when an opportunity didn’t pan out, he elected to enter the G-League Draft.
While he’ll begin the season in Grand Rapids, he has his eyes firmly set on an NBA return and still harbors championship aspirations.
“Winning games, having fun, getting my body in the best shape possible so that when that call comes, I'll be prepared,” he answers when asked about his goals for the upcoming season.
“My motivation is to be the best player I can possibly be. Be in the best shape, be one of the leaders on the team. Definitely helping the younger guys, having fun out there winning games and getting a ring. Man, before I retire I want an NBA ring.”
The G-League’s primary function is to develop young players, so Stephenson will be one of the few veterans on the Grand Rapids roster. Of the current team – which includes former NBA first-rounder Nik Stauskas and is coached by 2009 Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry – 11 of the 15 players are aged 26 and under.
So while Stephenson is focused on getting back in NBA shape and earning a spot in the league, he’s also looking forward to providing veteran leadership to the Gold’s younger players and helping them to earn opportunities themselves.
“It's always good to have an older guy there that has been through situations that the younger guy is going to go through,” he says.
“I can be that guy to teach them before they even make those mistakes. It's always good to have a veteran guy there to help you and guide you through the right steps.
“David West was a great veteran, Danny Granger, Jeff Foster. Those were the type of guys that helped me out and put me through situations that helped me in the long run.
“We'll get everybody ready. Hopefully everybody gets that chance to go up there and play in the NBA.”
Another way that Stephenson can help Grand Rapids’ younger players is through his play on the court.
Although he played primarily as a shooting guard during his NBA career, he also has plenty of experience handling the ball and averaged over four assists per game in three separate seasons.
He’s been playing as a point guard during training camp in Grand Rapids and is excited to play on the ball in the G-League and his embrace his role as a facilitator.
“Right now I'm handling the ball a lot, and that’s going to be great,” he says. “Being on the ball, getting those assists, putting the guys in the right places and organizing the offense. I haven’t played point guard in a while, so that's gonna be a great thing for me.
“I could play on the ball, I could play off the ball, it really doesn't matter. Whatever coach wants me to do, I’ll do it. It's definitely going to be a great experience playing point guard, though.
“I like to have the ball in my hand. I can actually put guys in places and help them and give them opportunities to score.”
Stephenson handled the ball plenty during his 2019-20 season in China. He earned the MVP award in the East Asian Terrific 12 as he led the Liaoning Flying Leopards to the title while averaging 26.7 points per game.
“It was a lot of fun,” he says. “As a young kid, my dad always told me: 'You could play all positions.' Whatever coach needed me to do on the floor, I was available. So when I got to China, they just said they wanted me to play on the ball more, and I was like: 'Man, that's great', because I'm used to doing that anyway.
“Being on the ball is definitely tough, but it's always a great, great opportunity. You're getting people involved, putting people in the right places, getting people open shots, being in attack mode, setting the offense, and that's always fun.”
Overall, Stephenson had a very positive experience in China and is full of praise for the standard of play in the league, particularly from his teammates.
“China was actually cool,” he says. “It was a great experience. I got to be the leader on a team and win some games. The fans out there were amazing. Different culture, learning different things, learning different languages and being in different cities. I had a great time.
“A lot of guys say the competition out there isn't that good, but I was actually impressed. The Chinese guys are pretty good out there. They work hard, we had two-a-days almost every other day, so they're in tip-top shape, and they work on their game all day every day.
“I had a really good team so I didn't have to do everything. A lot of guys go to China and have a lot of wear and tear on their bodies because you've got to do everything. I was blessed to have a team where I didn't have to do everything. There were a lot of guys on my team that could do it on their own and make tough shots.”
At this point in his career, Stephenson has a huge amount of experience he can bring to Grand Rapids. He has been a starter for multiple teams, has played with and against some of the best players in the league and famously went deep into the playoffs with the Pacers in 2013 and 2014, when he faced the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. He was tasked with guarding LeBron James, who is among the favorites in the NBA odds to be named MVP this season.
Stephenson set a career high in minutes per game in 2013-14 as that Pacers team – which also featured he likes of Paul George, Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert – came within a game of facing the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
Reflecting back on his time in Indiana now, Stephenson is able to pinpoint the values that made that team the most successful that he has played on to date.
“It was a great coaching staff, and we had a lot of players on the team that made a lot of sacrifices. Everybody knew their role. No one had an individual goal, it was a team goal. The team goal was to win, and no matter who scored what, we still played as a team. We held each other accountable, we took every game serious and we just wanted to win.
“My role was just doing the dirty work. To get as many rebounds as I can, crash the boards, get back and play hard defense. Everything else was a bonus.”
Stephenson developed a reputation as a ‘LeBron stopper’ for his tough defense against James during those playoff series. He credits the help and support of his teammates for his success in guarding the four-time NBA MVP.
“It was a great challenge. My teammates said: 'Pick up on him, don't let him get nothing easy, we're gonna have your back.’ And I knew from the jump that they weren’t just gonna have me playing one-on-one with him.
“That's what helped me a lot because I knew if I pressured him, I knew four other guys were gonna be there for me, be held accountable and have my back all the time.”
Stephenson later became a teammate of James’ with the Lakers during the 2018-19 season, and although the pair had been fierce rivals on the court during those earlier playoff series, he insists nothing was taken personally once they came together in Los Angeles.
The 31-year-old – who was given the Mr. New York Basketball award for being the best high school player in the state in 2009 – says his experience growing up playing street ball in New York gave him the competitive edge to make it to the NBA, play in those tough playoff battles and to still be fighting for a spot in the league at this point in his career.
“It's just basketball, you know? Everybody's competitive and wants to win. Where I'm from we never backed down from no competition. So no one took it personal, we just wanted to win.
“Being from New York, you've got to be tough to get on that court first of all. I grew up playing in a playground, and you just can't come on the court and say 'I got next'. You've got to earn that.
“I felt like that triggered me once I got to the NBA, I already had that dog in me. I already had that ambition and wanted to win and would never back down from competition. I think growing up in New York made me the way I am now.”
My first start in the NBA was a great moment. It was crazy because I didn't know I was gonna start and when coach told me right before the game, I literally ran in, texted my whole family like: 'Yo, everybody, man, I'm about to start, I'm about to start, make sure you watch the game!’
That was a great experience for me, I'll always remember that. I had like, seven points, I hit a three and two layups.
David West. He was a leader and was always doing the right thing on the floor. Even watching film, man, I used to try to find things that he was doing wrong and could never find anything! How he approached the game, he kept his body in shape at all times.
He was always there to give me the advice that I needed and helped me be a better player on the court. It's always good to have that older guy, the older veteran guy who knows the game and I just felt he was trustworthy.
Frank Vogel. A lot of coaches put that that leash on you, they don't let you play your game, but I felt like Frank Vogel was always a coach that just let me play my game.
He didn't let me get too out of control. When you're in the NBA and you're a coach it's all about the players trusting you and you allowing them to play and be themselves, and also help them not to make mistakes at the same time. I felt like Frank was the best at that.
Ultimate NBA starting five?
Oscar Robertson, one of my favorite players. Triple-double king. I went to Cincinnati because of him. He was a leader on the floor. Anybody that plays with the team and is very unselfish with the ball, I love guys like that.
Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Those two dogs on your team, I feel like that team is going to be unstoppable. They've got that same dog in them, a lot of people have that, that mentality to do whatever it takes to win.
Shaquille O’Neal, super unstoppable. I feel like nobody in the NBA could stop Shaq.
And Tim Duncan. I feel like he was the best power forward ever to play the game.