Today, we catch up with 2009 American Family Insurance ALL-USA basketball player Lance Stephenson of Lincoln (Brooklyn, N.Y.), who played a season for Cincinnati and is in his fourth season with the Indiana Pacers. For more than 30 years, USA TODAY has recognized the nation's top high school athletes. We are digging into the archives and checking in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades.
Lance Stephenson has been used as an example of what can go wrong when a player is hyped too much too soon.
The funny thing is that now, after being written off more times than a zombie in a 1950s horror movie, Stephenson is showing there was something to the buzz.
Ironically, for a player dubbed "Born Ready" in high school, Stephenson has, three seasons into his NBA career, slowly and steadily, made himself into a player.
New York City basketball scout Tom Konchalski remembers hearing about how good Stephenson was when the player was in grade school in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.
"He's had to carry the burden of celebrity since he was in the fourth grade because of the players who came before him from Coney Island, from Stephon Marbury to Sebastian Telfair," Konchalski said. "You shouldn't have to live up to that level of pressure."
For a while, he did. As an eighth-grader, he outplayed O.J. Mayo, then considered the top high school player, at a summer camp. At Lincoln High in Brooklyn, Stephenson broke the state high school career scoring record set by Telfair, while leading the Railsplitters to four consecutive Public School Athletic League titles. He even appeared in his own internet reality TV show, Born Ready, that followed him through his sophomore and junior seasons.
However, though he averaged 28.9 points and 10.2 points his senior year, people were beginning to doubt Stephenson. The summer before his senior year, the 6-5 guard was cut from USA Basketball's Under-18 team. Because of legal woes and recruiting questions, he went from being recruited by Kansas to signing with Cincinnati. The NCAA didn't clear him to play for the Bearcats until a little over a week before their first game.
In the 2009-10 season, he was the Big East's Freshman of the Year, averaging 12.3 points and 5.4 rebounds, but he wasn't drafted until the second round by the Pacers, the 40th player chosen overall in the 2010 draft.
His first two seasons with the Pacers, he averaged 10 minutes and 2.8 points a game and started only one game. His minutes were limited by often questionable shot selection, as he made only 35.4% of his attempts from the floor.
As he struggled, he talked regularly with Larry Bird, even after Bird stepped down as the Pacers' president in the summer of 2012, and again when Bird returned to the Pacers' front office this summer.
When Pacers forward Danny Granger went down with a knee injury last season, Stephenson stepped up. He improved his three-point shooting, which in turn opened things up for him to go to the basket. He worked hard on his rebounding and prided himself in his defense, even asking to guard LeBron James in the playoffs. After averaging 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game in the regular season, he improved those averages to 9.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the playoffs.
"The older I get, the game slows down for me," Stephenson said. "I think I've learned a lot. I know when I can penetrate and when I can shoot. Before, I didn't realize when I was rushing, but I learned, watching other players. Indiana has made me a better player. Everybody on the team is mature. There are no bad role models."
When Stephenson was in high school, his father, Lance, Sr., was criticized for allowing the Born Ready project and for being too involved in his son's recruitment. But surrounded by his father, mother, brother, cousin and two young daughters in Indianapolis, that same sense of family helps to to stabilize Stephenson's life.
"When you have kids, you have to be more mature," Stephenson said. "They're looking up to you. They're just like me. They like to joke around all the time."
Stephenson is still only 23, with more growing up to do, but he's come a long way from Lincoln.
"To get on the floor with the Pacers, he's had to totally reinvent himself," Konchalski said. "In high school, he was just a scorer. What got him on the floor in Indianapolis was his ability to do other things. He could defend multiple positions. He's one of the best rebounding guards in the league. He's a good passer."
What Stephenson hasn't left behind is the New York swagger that got him noticed in the first place. In the Pacers' first two games this season, Stephenson is averaging 17.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. With Granger again out with a calf injury, Stephenson is leading the team, averaging 38.5 minutes a game.
"I love the pressure," he said. "I love when all the eyes are on me. It shows that you can never be slacking. I like all the challenges. I like how people looked down on me and said I couldn't make it. Once I got the opportunity, I knew I could be a successful player in the NBA."