The New Orleans Pelicans announced their opening day 15-man roster and there was one slight surprise. Lance Stephenson signed a partially guaranteed contract late in the offseason and beat out Alonzo Gee and his fully guaranteed contract, to make the Pelicans opening day roster.
Lance Stephenson was unsigned as training camps were only a few weeks away. It seemed that he was fighting just to get another chance in the NBA. Stephenson has bounced around ever since leaving Indiana, having played on three teams in the last two seasons alone. He was a disaster in Charlotte, didn’t really crack the rotation as a Clipper, but made a bit of a bounceback in Memphis. Yet, he remained unsigned until September. The Pelicans became his fifth NBA team.
In Memphis last season, Stephenson played a large role because of all the injuries. He averaged 14 points a game in his 26 games for the Grizzlies. In fact, it was while playing for the Grizzlies that Stephenson put up a career high 33 points against the New Orleans Pelicans.
There are questions about his attitude and about his ability to fit into a team role. But this is a player that averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists for a number one seed in the playoffs. And it seems that Stephenson is ready to shed that perception of himself. He has said it’s like being a rookie again. He is embracing any role that Head Coach Alvin Gentry is giving to him. “All I can do is judge him by what he’s done here. I haven’t had any problems at all coaching him. I haven’t had any problems at all when I corrected him,” Gentry told the Associated Press.
Stephenson absolutely can be a good basketball player, he just has to prove he can do it outside of Indiana where most of his success came. He is determined to stick around this time and be a contributor again. “My goal is to prove everybody wrong this year - work hard and show a different side of me. Everybody got this expectation of me, I just want to show them a different side of me,” Stephenson told the Times-Picayune.
General Manager Dell Demps told the Times-Picayune that it was mainly about roster need.” It was more on the lines of team need than one guy beating out the other guy. We felt with Lance’s ability, especially without Tyreke and Jrue to start the season, we had more of a need for a playmaker,” said Demps.
With the absences of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans at the beginning of the season, the Pelicans were in desperate need of ball handlers. Stephenson can fill that role for New Orleans.
Stephenson agreed with the assessment by Demps. He told the Associated Press, “I feel like I can do whatever the coach wants me to do. I can rebound or play defense. I can play the point. I can make something happen. I’m a great playmaker.”
Stephenson only had 100 thousand of his contract guaranteed, so money wise it would have been easy to let him go. Stephenson absolutely played himself onto the team.
Alonzo Gee was the odd man out for the Pelicans. The Pelicans will still pay his full 1.2 million dollar salary. Gee was a big part of the Pelicans last season, not necessarily statistically, but Gee played 73 games for a banged up team. New Orleans opted to re-sign him this offseason, and in a strange twist, Gee couldn’t make the team because of injuries.
Stephenson didn’t put up crazy preseason stats (7 points, 4 assists in 24 minutes a game) but he adds a dimension to the Pelicans that was needed. Stephenson can be described as a “north-south” driver. He will take the ball and get to the rim. The jump shot needs work, but the Pelicans needed someone that could create for themselves and for others. That’s what Evans and Holiday are so good at, and Stephenson will at least soften the blow of missing those two players.
Can Lance Stephenson return to being a borderline all-star, and the NBA’s most improved player? Hard to say. But his chances may be running out so he must make the most of the opportunity in New Orleans. And so far, he’s done just that.