I'd like you to watch two videos of a black teenager. Go.
Lance Stephenson is a good basketball player. Lance Stephenson is New York's all-time leading scorer. Lance Stephenson is now a Bearcat.
No, seriously, Lance Stephenson is now a Bearcat.
March 4, 2006. That's the last time I was this excited about UC basketball. UC just defeated West Virginia (thanks to Devan Downey's 16/10/5) to get to .500 in the Big East, and cement their place in the NCAA tournament (or so I thought).
Starting with the selection committee's screw job roughly one week later, the words "positive" and "UC basketball" haven't been used in many of the same sentences.
It's been mostly negative for three-and-a-half years. Even when something good was happening, like a modest winning streak, I'd always point out the marginally talented players on the team and the superior talent on the other bench. I knew the other shoe was going to fall. I wasn't stupid. When they won, it was with smoke and mirrors. When they lost, it's because they were supposed to. Even last February, when the Bearcats were in contention for an at-large birth, I didn't talk myself into anything silly. When they lost to (winless in the Big East) Depaul in the conference tourney, I thought, "Yeah, that seems about right. Average teams lose to bad teams every once in a while."
Cincinnati was an average team in 08-09, whether you realize it or not. The problem (other than "their players weren't good enough")? Scoring. They had nobody -- NOBODY -- who could get an easy bucket.
But now they have Stephenson, not to mention point guard Cashmere Wright coming back from injury, and I can't help but think that UC is back on the map.
So, anyway, upon hearing news of the Stephenson signing, I decided to devour his highlight videos on YouTube (an Internet website).
Was I impressed with the man on my 17-inch screen? I suppose it would be fair to say that I fist pumped several thousand times like the white man I'll always be.
Before moving forward, allow me to say this: I'm convinced Lance Stephenson will never play a single second for the Bearcats. Whether it be his sexual assault case or the NCAA deciding he's no longer an amateur, something will go wrong. Again, I'm convinced. 100 percent. This would be status quo for the Mick Cronin era.
But I love to get my heart broken, so I'm going to operate under the assumption that Lance Stephenson will be eligible to play basketball contests in Clifton next winter.
UC is going to be good next season. No, seriously.
Lance Stephenson is the most skilled wing player in my life as a Bearcat fan. That's a fairly obvious statement, I realize, but it feels pretty great to make an obvious statement like that.
Lance Stephenson, the second he walks on the floor, will be UC's best offensive player. His slashing, herky-jerky game and ball-handling skills are NBA worthy right now. Scouts say he's an inconsistent shooter (who isn't at that age?) but his stroke is nice. After eyeballing his tapes, I would say his game compares a little to sturdily built chaps like Carmelo Anthony, Quentin Richardson and Caron Butler at similar ages. All three are taller -- and all three were brilliant offensive rebounders in college, especially off their own miss -- but none were blessed with elite athleticism.
Oh, Stephenson is plenty athletic, and he might be the third best athlete on the team (behind Darnell Wilks and Cashmere Wright), but he's not going to blow you away with his leaping ability. That was me warning you.
Regardless, the dude can play. He's a prolific scorer from the wing, and I can't remember the last time UC had a guy like that.
Examining the more talented wings of the past twenty years...
DerMarr Johnson was too stiff to blow by people, and too weak to finish with authority; Ruben Patterson couldn't shoot or dribble; Damon Flint possessed a great overall skill-set, but he lacked range, and was less athletic than Stephenson; James White barely used his (overrated) athleticism to his advantage, was painfully weak physically and he couldn't jump off two feet. He also had lousy balance; he was constantly knocked to the floor. Add it all up and he never EVER finished after contact.
Now, aside from Flint, all three of those gentlemen earned NBA dollars (including Patterson, who made a lot, and White, who has a chance to stick around), while Stephenson hasn't played a second above high school. But, if we're talking potential, well, it ain't close. Stephenson has a complete offensive game.
In fact, let me put on my amateur scouting cap and break down Stephenson's strengths/weaknesses, based solely on two five-minute videos.
(And by the way, I don't know what to tell you if you think the following scouting report ranks as the most self important thing I've ever written. I can't help it. I have such strong opinions of Stephenson's ability that I have no choice but to express them in this space. And if you think I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, that's not my problem. I'm at peace with my Lord)
STRENGTHS (and there are many)
Stephenson's a natural scorer. He can score in a variety of ways. He has 3-point range, an in-between game off the bounce and the ability to go all the way to the basket off the dribble. Sometimes he makes it look easy.
Vision. Okay, he doesn't pass much, but his pinpoint passes out of double teams and to cutters reveal his excellent vision. Some guys are willing to pass, but they stink at it. I've watched Deonta Vaughn for three years and I can't recall a single beautiful pass to a slashing teammate. And his alley oops are never timed correctly. Vision is something you either have or you don't. Stephenson has it, Vaughn doesn't. The 08-09 Bearcats only had one decent passer -- Rashad Bishop -- and now, with the additions of Stephenson and Cashmere Wright, they have three.
Body. He has the body of an NBA shooting guard. Very strong. Best of all, he's learned how to use it. He's already learned how to create space with subtle bumps and as long as he's always attacking the hoop he'll get to the free throw line quite a bit; guys who are both physically strong and strong with the ball make a living at the foul line.
Outside shooting. Stephenson has NBA range and a quick release. No hitches at all. Solid lift. The poor video quality doesn't reveal if he does something odd with his release, like shooting with too much of his left hand on the ball, or with little rotation, but I highly doubt it. His follow-through indicates he's got a near-textbook jumper.
Looks just as comfortable shooting off the bounce as he does off the catch. This is a good thing, as shooting off the catch is much easier than off the dribble. And some guys never learn to shoot off the dribble. Bruce Bowen led the NBA in three-point percentage in 2003 and I'd bet you six-thousand American dollars that he didn't connect on a single three that season after taking even one dribble. He's a catch-and-shoot guy, and nothing else.
I don't see many weaknesses in his game, but here's some nitpicking:
Shoots too much; over-dribbles a little; favors his right hand too often around the hole; not a great leaper.
The leaping thing would bother me more if he weren't so strong, or didn't already have an idea of how to be crafty around the basket. Being a well-rounded scorer is far more important than being able to jump over people.
Everything else is fixable. But he'd be wise to fix them if he wants the NBA to call his name in a year.
Ball-hogging and over-dribbling are simply a product of Stephenson routinely facing inferior opponents. If you know you can get off a decent shot by simply dribbling around for a few extra seconds -- because you've been doing this since you were eight -- well, it's understandable. But it won't fly (at least not all the time) at the next level. Mick Cronin will have to nip this is the bud immediately. Thankfully, I don't need to remind him of this.
Finishing with his left. Guys who finish impressively with their off hand will always have a soft spot in my heart. They're also tougher to defend. Jason Maxiell and Eric Hicks shot a million free throws as Bearcats, but I'm struggling to remember a single instance when they were completing an and-one. Common scenario: They'd set up shop on the right block, turn middle, directly into the chest of the defender and release with the right hand (or attempt a dunk). Whistle blows. Two free throws. They never used their right hand as a shield while finishing with their left. It was maddening. Hicks and Maxiell were plenty strong enough to finish after contact, but they never were able to when the defender decided to molest their dominant hand.
Anyway, I watched Stephenson finish a few times with his left, but not nearly as many times as were presented. Too often, instead of a simple lefty layup, he found his way into more congested areas just so he could release with his right. This could be nothing, but I still feel it's worth mentioning.
As for the other stuff, scouting reports say he stands around too much...I wouldn't know. I hope it's not true; that can be a problem.
And I have no clue what he brings to the table defensively (forgive me, the highlight videos don't exactly emphasize his defensive fundamentals). But defense doesn't matter. Okay, of course defense matters, just not in this case. Stephenson was brought here to score them buckets, and barring an embarrassing misjudgement on my behalf, that's precisely what he'll do next season at an alarming rate.
I like sports.
-Brad Spieser (Brad@TwinKilling.com)