In early October, when the Lakers were playing their first preseason games, LeBron James started to see the impact Lance Stephenson had on the crowd.
“Between him and Kuz, they’re gonna be the fan favorites,” James said then of the veteran guard and second-year forward Kyle Kuzma. “You can see that already. Kuz check in the game, you hear the Kuz chants, and every time Lance put his hands on the ball, you hear the fans.”
A month and a half into the regular season, James’ observation has proven to be true. Stephenson delights fans with his enthusiasm and his air guitar celebrations. His playmaking and shooting have helped the Lakers, but the Lance Stephenson Experience can be a roller coaster, and he brings those ups and downs to practices and games.
The Lakers “encourage the fun but there’s limitations to it,” Stephenson said. “Sometimes too much fun can hurt the team. Try and limit it, try and do the best I could. Try to have fun but bring a winning mentality at the same time.”
Stephenson, 28, will face his former team, the Indiana Pacers, on Thursday. It’s the organization for which he has played his best and with which he has the strongest connection.
His current and former teams face each other at a time when Stephenson is learning how to be himself in the most positive way for the Lakers.
“He’s been great,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He brings a competitive spirit. He’s another ballhandler we can use to either get his own shot or get someone else a shot, and he makes practice exciting every day.”
Stephenson began his NBA career with the Pacers, who drafted him during the second round in 2010. He spent four seasons with the Pacers before leaving in free agency to sign with the Charlotte Hornets. Stephenson then became a journeyman, spending time with the Clippers, Grizzlies, Pelicans and Timberwolves before the Pacers brought him back.
Stephenson is averaging 8.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists — close to his career averages — this season despite playing eight less minutes per game.
“I would say just being put in a position where I just could succeed,” Stephenson said of his success with Indiana. “Just feeling comfortable, playing hard basketball. That unit we had last year, we were together. We wanted to win and we played together every game. We couldn’t win without playing together. That’s one of the reasons.”
Stephenson signed a one-year deal with the Lakers this summer.
Signing Stephenson to play alongside James raised some eyebrows. The two players’ famous moment together came during the Eastern Conference finals in 2014. Stephenson blew in James’ ear as a way to try to irritate him.
When the Lakers offered Stephenson a contract, Stephenson’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, called James’ agent, Rich Paul, to make sure James was OK with Stephenson as a teammate. The answer was yes.
For Stephenson, joining the Lakers had a lot to do with Magic Johnson’s pitch.
“I would say when Magic called, Magic explained to me what my role would be, that I could definitely help this team,” Stephenson said of the Lakers’ president of basketball operations. “I just went for it. I felt like with me being an addition on this team it would be very helpful.”
Johnson didn’t want to stifle Stephenson’s personality.
“I want to see Lance shake it up,” Johnson said before training camp started. “I want that because that’s who he is.”
While Johnson never changed that position, he did ask Stephenson to make sure along with that fun, he was keeping in mind the team’s goals.
“Just bring that winning mentality, that defensive mindset that veteran experience that I had,” Stephenson said. “I think so far so good. We feel like we could get better and I feel like I could get better. We’re working toward that.”
Stephenson became a critical component to the Lakers early in the season. When Rajon Rondo, a point guard by trade, and Brandon Ingram, who fills the role in some lineups, were suspended after the second game of the season, Stephenson found himself as the Lakers’ backup point guard.
The Lakers are currently dealing with injuries to point guards Lonzo Ball and Rondo as well as guard Josh Hart, who is playing through an ankle injury.
Ball, who sprained his left ankle Tuesday late in the first half of the game against Denver, is listed as questionable for Thursday. Ball did not practice with the team Wednesday, receiving treatment instead.
Stephenson’s contributions again will be needed.
“I think he’s comfortable,” Walton said. “I don’t have anything to put that against but with my time and experience with him, he seems to be very comfortable with the guys and enjoys his time here.”
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday
On Air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet; Radio: 710, 1330