NEW YORK — The Lance Stephenson who made his name at Madison Square Garden and the one who arrived there Sunday are not one and the same.
The former saw his place in New York City prep lore crystallized with four straight PSAL championships while at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. The latter can’t get himself off of the inactive list for the Indiana Pacers.
Yesterday seems so far away.
But whenever Stephenson steps back into the Garden, as he did when Indiana fell to the Knicks, 98-92, he gets that old bravado back.
“I feel like I can’t miss on this court when I’m playing,” he said.
The problem for him this year has been that Stephenson has not been able to play, still looking for his first minute as an NBA player. He has been glued to the bench in his street clothes, a victim of what Pacers coach Jim O’Brien calls a roster crunch.
“Right now it’s a numbers problem,” said O’Brien. “We would have preferred not to get any younger in terms of our draft picks but we were unable to do it so we ended up with 15 guys and it’s a numbers crunch.”
The humbling season hasn’t gotten Stephenson down. He has instead taken it as a learning experience. The Pacers drafted him as a point guard, which was not the position he played in high school or during his one year at Cincinnati. O’Brien has stressed that Stephenson needs to improve his defense before he can see the court, something the rookie realizes as well.
“I just have to learn how to be at the right spot at the right time,” he said. “Everybody knows I can score and get to the basket but on the defensive side, where to be at and how to help my teammates when the ball is on the other side. Just learning that, I think I’ll be good and getting better at it.”
Still, it is all part of the learning curve for Stephenson so far and he is taking it as a motivating factor, not a reason to get down.
“Actually, it’s making me hungrier,” he said. “Every day in practice, I try to do something to learn something different or add something to my game. Every day is a learning experience for me.”
Despite growing up just a borough away, it was not exactly a homecoming for the Brooklyn product. He did not have a large contingent waiting for him.
During a small window in time there was the chance that he could have been able to play in New York. Following just one year at Cincinnati, Stephenson declared for the NBA Draft and was available when the Knicks were on the clock with the 38th and 39th overall picks.
There was some a strong clamoring amongst the fan base to take the hometown star. But general manager Donnie Walsh instead took Andy Rautins and Landry Fields. The Pacers took him with the next pick.
So far the selection has worked out just fine for the Knicks as Fields is one of the top rookies in the league, averaging 10 points per game and 7.5 rebounds.
The Knicks worked out Stephenson and interviewed him but decided to go a different direction, and in hindsight Walsh thinks that not starting his career in New York will be a boon for Stephenson.
“I think Lance is going to be a very good player,” said Walsh. “I personally think he’s better off in Indiana and he can start his NBA career not being in New York. I think that’ll be good for him.”
There may be some merit to that as Stephenson was arrested over the summer for pushing his girlfriend and mother of his child down a flight of stairs. It was not his first run-in with the law. The year prior, he also pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge for groping a 17-year old female outside of Lincoln High.
While it may ultimately prove to be better for his career to start out somewhere else, he can’t escape the feelings he gets whenever Stephenson gets walking back into Madison Square Garden.
“I came here in the Big East but the Lincoln days were the most special days for me,” he said. ”Coming here during the championships, winning four in a row. It’s hard to win four in a row. I did it and it was hard. I love playing at the Garden, it was the best moment of my life.”
To this point he has been an NBA player in name only, not in playing time. So he still awaits that first time he can see his jersey hanging in his locker, signifying he will be activated for the game.
“Oh man, when I see my jersey hanging out, I’ll probably faint,” he said. “But that’ll be a great moment to see my jersey there and get on the floor.”
Follow Mike Vorkunov on Twitter: @Mike_Vorkunov