As recently as 2014, Lance Stephenson was an up-and-coming NBA player seemingly on the verge of stardom.
Three years later, he is happy to sign a 10-day contract with the Timberwolves, a move the team announced Wednesday morning.
In the time between, Stephenson bounced around from one NBA franchise to the next. After helping Indiana reach the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in two seasons, he signed a three-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets in the summer of 2014.
That didn’t work out, as Stephenson had maybe his worst year to date and was traded to the Clippers the following offseason for next to nothing. Stephenson played part of the next season in Los Angeles before being traded to Memphis, where he finished the season.
He signed with the Pelicans on a non-guaranteed deal this offseason, playing in six games before he was released after suffering a groin injury that required surgery.
Whether it be because of poor play, attitude or injury, Stephenson hasn’t been able to stick.
“He’s been his own worst enemy a lot of times, and I think he’d be the first to tell you that,” Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.
Stephenson is hoping that changes in Minnesota.
“I came (into the league) as a young kid, so I’ve seen a lot and I’ve learned a lot,” Stephenson said. “I feel like I’m ready for this opportunity. I just want to come in and help this squad.”
Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves’ coach and president of basketball operations, can easily recall what Stephenson was in Indiana. The Bulls, then coached by Thibodeau, and Pacers had a lot of battles back in those days.
Thibodeau saw the best of Stephenson: his toughness, competitive spirit and ability to score. And Thibodeau said one of Stephenson’s underrated characteristics is his ability to pass. Stephenson is the type of player capable of grabbing a rebound, busting out into transition and making a play.
“Anytime you can add those qualities to your team it can make everyone else better,” Thibodeau said.
But there was a lot more of that from Stephenson in Indiana than anywhere else he’s been the past few years. That’s why he signed for so little with New Orleans last summer and is playing on a 10-day deal in Minnesota.
But there’s still intrigue for a variety of reasons. Stephenson is still only 26 years old, one of the reasons Thibodeau thought he would be a good fit in Minnesota, and has shown the ability to succeed in the NBA.
“You already know he has it in him,” Thibodeau said. “Now we’ve got to get it out of him again.”
The beauty for Minnesota is this is a low-risk, high-reward proposition. If Stephenson can revive the player he was in Indiana, this signing will be a major coup for the Wolves. If Stephenson doesn’t work out, he’ll be gone by the all-star break.
No harm, no foul.
“It’s on him,” Thibodeau said. “How badly does he want to do it and the commitment that has to be made to get back?”
That question will be answered in the coming days. For now, Stephenson is saying all the right things. He sat on the couch and watched a lot of basketball over the past couple months as his groin healed. That allowed him to learn more about the game.
He is already putting in some hours in Minnesota. Stephenson said he spent time with the Wolves’ coaching staff Tuesday trying to cram in an understanding of the offense.
Stephenson is excited about the Wolves’ young talent, adding this can be a playoff team. This franchise looks to have an exciting future; one Stephenson would like to be a part of.
Stephenson appears to have a plan to make this stop different, so maybe he can stick around for more than a couple weeks, or months.
“Just my approach, coming in as a vet,” he said. “Just being very defensive-minded and setting an example. Being the first one here, last one to leave and getting with the coaches and showing the young guys what it takes to be a good vet.”
If he can do that, maybe Minnesota can catch lightning in a bottle, and possibly find another unexpected piece of its long-term future in the process.
“Hopefully he’s grown,” Thibodeau said. “And if he has, I think he can contribute to what we’re doing.”
“My job is to work hard,” Stephenson said, “prove my point and show everybody I belong in this league.”