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Building an American Comeback: Lance Stephenson

The last season featured a handful of professional basketball players born in the USA play abroad after having being part of the NBA or the G League in the prior two seasons. We review their 2019-20 seasons in the Chinese CBA and/or Euroleague in this series of articles, to know what they did and the chances they have to making it back to America.

Liaoning Flying Leopards Training Session Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

There is no room at the top-tier of American professional basketball—the NBA and the G League, by extension—for everyone to be part of it. Every year we have a plethora of undrafted free agents luckily signed to contracts from NBA/G League franchises to become part of their squads. Every year, too, we see a lot of kids and veterans finding no place in the best hoop leagues in the world, thus looking for chances abroad.

That is not the most common path to building a sustainable career in the NBA, for sure, but for athletes that have worked their whole lives around basketball, it surely is one way to try to reach the pinnacle of the sport in the country where the best hoopers happen to play in.

In this series, we will explore the 2019-20 season of some American players that played basketball either in the CBA (top Asian league, and a place for ex-NBA veterans and young undrafted players) or the Euroleague (the best-combined league in Europe and the consensus second-best league in the world only behind the NBA). All of these players also played in the NBA or the G League during the 2017-18 or 2018-19 seasons, so they are not too separated from their playing days in American soil and could still be re-called by an NBA franchise soon if they keep their level of play up.

Lance Stephenson - Liaoning Flying Leopards (China - CBA)

Liaoning Flying Leopards Unveils New Signing Lance Stephenson Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

The last time we saw Lance Stephenson playing basketball in American soil wasn’t that long ago, and we have had plenty of time to become familiar with the guard over the years.

Stephenson built an incredible prep-career at Abraham Lincoln before committing to the University of Cincinnati, where he’d play one year at NCAA level becoming one of the best rookies of the 2010 collegiate season (he was named to the Big East All-Rookie team and claimed the Big East Rookie of the Year award).

Not even those accolades helped Stephenson, a born and raised grinder, secure his place in the NBA ranks. He was drafted 40th-overall by Indiana in the summer of 2010 but after spending four years there his bouncing around the league entered a carousel. From the start of the 2014-15 season to the 2018-19 one, his last one in the Association to date, Stephenson played for Charlotte, the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis, New Orleans, Minnesota, Indiana, and finally the Los Angeles Lakers.

In his last stop in Hollywood, Stephenson logged a very impressive 68 games and 1,123 minutes of playing time averaging 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.1 assists. Those numbers were far from great, but Stephenson was nothing close to a washed-up player judging by either his usage or stats. Such was the case that just a few months ago, this past March, Stephenson was “99 percent” set to sign with the Indiana Pacers after the COVID caused the Chinese league to stop before shutting down the NBA too.

That speaks volumes of how close Lance was to completing his comeback after playing one year of basketball in China, which should also put us on notice of what could still happen in the near future regarding a potential return to America by Stephenson. In fact, the very own Stephenson said that “I definitely wanted to play in Orlando” prior to the NBA restart. Give him the chance, and Lance will jump at it.

Playing a year for the Liaoning Flying Leopards of the Chinese Basketball Association after signing with then in August 2019, Stephenson has kept his game quite to a top-tier level.

In the 2019-20 season, Stephenson played 29 games in China, averaged 34.8 minutes per game, and in that time he was able to average a nice 26-7-3 line to go with more than a steal per game. Lance has always been a bucket, and his shooting percentages show: 52.2% from the floor with 30% success from beyond the three-point line and 77.8% of made free-throws on 7.4 attempts per game. He helped his team win the Terrific-12 Finals in September, an All-Asian tournament in which he also claimed the MVP Award.

While Stephenson wasn’t the best player in the CBA last season—a certain Joe Young clearly beat him, and we already covered his exploits in the past in an article that fostered this series. However, was still one of the best players in the Chinese league: among players with at least 20 games played and 20.0 minutes per game, Lance ranked 12th in points (26.7), 32nd in rebounds (7.4), and 32nd in assists (3.8). He was one of only five players to put a 26-7-3 line on those games/minutes. No joke.

Stephenson is entering his age 30 season after celebrating his birthday this past September 5th, so it is not that his career is over. And again, he was this close to coming back to the NBA this past March until the pandemic threw everything through the window and blocked international players from joining the L.

In the same interview when he said that he wanted to be part of the Pacers squad inside the bubble, he also let it be known that he’d be working in Indianapolis with his sight put on making an NBA-comeback in time for the 2020-21 season, with “[his goal being] just to stay in shape, stay working, stay ready for next season”.

Here’s to hope we see Lance Stephenson in an NBA rotation as soon as next season tips off, whenever that comes.