As promised, I want to give my take on the Lance Stephenson situation. I'll discuss here a brief history of his recruitment, some facts and rumors about him that may be the reason for the strange path its taken, and where I think will be the best fit for him.
Here are the facts, for those that aren't following the Stephenson recruitment closely: First of all, you should be aware that he is a very highly touted recruit. Scout.com has him the top rated small forward in the nation (the other scouting services list him as a shooting guard, which is probably where he'll play in college and the NBA). Rivals.com has him the 11th overall player in the nation, and Scouts, Inc. puts him 12th. So he's a major recruit. As of less than about a month ago, it was expected that Stephenson was choosing between staying at home with St. John's (he's from Brooklyn) and playing for Bill Self at Kansas. Maryland was also in the picture. Kansas ended up holding out because of the Calipari exodus from Memphis, and they were able to snag Xavier Henry. It's not a big deal that they chose Henry over Stephenson, since as good as Stephenson is, Henry is thought by many to be the top high school recruit in the '09 class.
With Kansas going with Henry, Maryland suddenly jumped back in as the chief big time program competition for St. John's since, let's be honest, St. John's hasn't been a big time basketball program in well over a decade. Less than two weeks ago it came out that St. John's was effectively out of the Stephenson sweepstakes, although it was a bit unclear how much Stephenson turned St. John's down, as opposed to how much St. John's just lost interest. It soon became known that Maryland was beginning to look for other options as well. Once again it was unclear how much it was Stephenson turning the school down as it was the school beginning to step back from the situation. Reportedly Maryland was queasy about the fact that Stephenson visited Under Armour during his recruiting visit.
New schools immediately popped onto Stephenson's radar. Just one day after St. John's was reportedly knocked out of the race came news that Arizona was going to make a hard push at Stephenson. Memphis has also jumped into the race. Even Isiah Thomas and FIU are reportedly making a push. Rumors continue to swirl, and yet Stephenson remains unsigned. Every indication is that none of the big time programs want to make a serious effort to get this kid with unquestioned physical skills. And now he has reporters calling him a team cancer and a supermodel with herpes.
So what's the deal? For starters, there are accusations of a sexual assault. But first of all, it should be known that these are allegations that seem to be very much in dispute. And second of all, top schools recruit kids who have run afoul of the law all the time. Tyreke Evans was involved in a drive-by shooting that his cousin was eventually convicted for, and that didn't stop top teams from recruiting him. And it's barely been a week since John Wall was charged with breaking and entering, a fact which has not seriously deterred the teams chasing after him. The fact is that many major college basketball programs don't care how messed up a kid is off the court as long as they can help the basketball team on the court. It's a seedy side of basketball that I don't like, but it's reality and we can't be naive as to believe that many top coaches care about anything other than winning games. So forget that alleged sexual assault as the reason for teams backing off of Stephenson.
One clue comes from Stephenson's being cut from the United States Under-18 squad by Davidson coach Bob McKillop. McKillop said all that needed to be said in this classic gem of a quote: "McKillop insisted yesterday that Stephenson was a "gentleman and respectful at all times, with no attitude" but that his style of play just didn't fit into the national squad's system of ball distribution." In other words, Stephenson is a selfish player who won't pass the ball or make his teammates better. He's also had trouble staying on the court in high school, getting suspended from his team for an "altercation" with a teammate. The folks at DraftExpress are a little bit less subtle with their criticism, with this description of his play with the McDonald's All-American team: "On the court, it was much of the same: bad shots, selfish play, terrible body language, cheap shots to the opposition, plenty of turnovers, predictably followed by him visibly blaming others for his own mistakes."
The fact is that most coaches will overlook bad behavior off of the court. You wouldn't see so many top schools pulling away from a McDonald's All-American because of an alleged sexual assault. But when people start throwing the term "program killer" around, and your on-court demeanor and behavior is considered among the worst in the nation, that's what will cause coaches to shy away. Stephenson is used to being on a team where he's been the star of stars at all times, and where he can do pretty much whatever he wishes. If he goes to a school like Arizona or Maryland he's going to have to meld into a system where he won't be "The Guy", at least at first. There are major questions about whether he can handle that position.
So which schools make sense for Stephenson? I think he's got to be somewhere that he can be the star. But he's also got to go somewhere with a well-established coach and experienced players. I don't understand why Sean Miller is trying to recruit him to Arizona at all. Miller is certainly a coach with a ton of success, but he's trying to build a brand new program at Arizona. He needs to set a tone from the outset, and without experienced older players to lead the way he's got to have high character guys. I could understand recruiting Stephenson if you've got Jordan Hill to keep him in line, but Hill will be gone, and I don't see anybody else on Arizona who Stephenson will respect enough to listen to. And with his history of success and with so much gone from last year's Arizona team, Miller is under no pressure to win big in his first season. And he has already grabbed a big recruit since moving west, so Miller doesn't need to make a splash by signing another elite high school player.
One new coach who I could see wanting Stephenson is Josh Pastner at Memphis. He needs a big splash in order to convince the elite recruits in the 2010 and 2011 classes that Memphis is still a big time program to be at. Also, even though Pastner is a brand new head coach, he's not new at Memphis. And he will have Seniors on his team that have played key roles in a National Championship game. I would think that St. John's would be a team willing to take a chance as well, because they are constantly losing out on the top New York City recruits, and grabbing Stephenson would be a great sign that they're moving back towards the top of the Big East. I get the sense that Norm Roberts has been overly cautious about going out on a limb for a top recruit out of fear of getting burned, but he's going to have to take some chances to raise the profile of his program. As I said, most kids playing high school ball in New York City right now haven't got a clue that St. John's has been a national power for most of the history of NCAA basketball. They only know what they've seen lately, which is an over-matched and under-talented Red Storm squad.
The FIU situation doesn't make any sense to me, because I don't think there's any question that Stephenson wants to get national attention, and wants to be in the NCAA Tournament and on national television. There won't be too many NBA scouts at FIU games next season, whether Stephenson is there or not. But if he can't find a home at any of the elite D-I schools, anything is possible. But I would have to think that Memphis would be willing to take a chance even if the likes of Arizona and Maryland are not. Memphis would represent a chance for Stephenson to play on national television, and to play in the NCAA Tournament (I have them right now as having a slightly-more-than-50% chance to make the Tournament, but Stephenson would make them a near-lock). They have an offensive system that is suited to showing off athleticism and skill for NBA scouts. And you'd imagine that Pastner would be willing to take a gamble on a kid like Stephenson, even in his first season as head coach.
But at this point, I don't know what to believe. The fact that I really wouldn't be too surprised to see arguably the most physically talented high school basketball player in the nation head to Florida International is a sign of just how crazy and wild this off-season has been. Anything is possible.