The Los Angeles Lakers started the past week with a thrilling overtime game against the San Antonio Spurs, albeit a loss, followed by their first two wins of the season against the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets.
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Kyle Kuzma exploded for 37 points in one game, Lonzo Ball returned to the starting lineup with an improved outside shot, and JaVale McGee continued to surprise with back-to-back 20-point efforts. It goes without saying that LeBron James was also brilliant.
But the most deserving for Player of the Week was none other than Lance Stephenson. Yes, you read it correctly, Lance Stephenson.
Some did not expect much from Stephenson when he was signed as a free agent after playing for the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzles, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, and a second stint with the Pacers, during his career.
As soon as Stephenson was signed, some things became clear right away. First, he showed up at the Lakers’ training facility in excellent physical shape. He became very visible right away working out and scrimmaging with the omnipresent Kuzma, Josh Hart and McGee. He was shooting the ball well, and he seemed exceptionally focused.
When a fight broke out against the Houston Rockets, instead of joining the melee as a younger, temperamental Stephenson might have done, he played the role of peacemaker as he wrapped his arms around Brandon Ingram and dragged him away as the scuffle broke out between Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul.
Last week, Stephenson hit his stride and was instrumental in the Lakers earning their first wins of the season. Against the Spurs, a heart-breaking, one-point overtime loss, he played only 17 minutes but scored 8 points and had 4 assists. The Lakers were a +17 with Stephenson on the court, a team high.
In the next game, a big win against the Phoenix Suns, Stephenson scored a team-high 23 points and had 8 rebounds and 8 assists. He was very aggressive and confident, and he was as important as anyone in securing the Lakers’ first win of the season
In the third game of the week, a big victory against the undefeated Denver Nuggets, Stephenson was the catalyst who arguably won the game. It was a see-saw affair most of the night but in the fourth quarter Denver went up by seven points and it appeared the Lakers were fading.
Enter Stephenson, who hit two consecutive three-point shots followed by a driving layup. His energy was infectious, and he rallied the team to go on to secure the win.
Stephenson, who is known as more of a dribbler than a passer, was also responsible in that game for a pass that may prove to be a highlight of the season for the Lakers. He was dribbling at full speed up court when he threw a perfect two-handed pass to a streaking James who caught the ball full stride and finished with a monstrous dunk.
The Lakers, riding a two-game winning streak, disappointed themselves and fans, in the final game of the week in San Antonio. It was mostly the offense which let the team down, as they scored a season-low 106 points.
With Rajon Rondo back in the rotation, there were fewer minutes for Stephenson. Still, he finished the first half with 12 points, trailing only James and Kyle Kuzma who had 13 at halftime. For the game, in 23 minutes, Stephenson had 14 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists. Only James and Kuzma finished with more points, and only James had more rebounds.
The season is very young, but Stephenson is having a career year so far in every statistical category. He is averaging 11.7 points per game, 5.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists, while shooting 53.6 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line. His PER rating is 19.7, light years better than his career average of 12.2.
Stephenson, at age 28, is at a crossroads. He may realize that this is his final chance to find a place where he can stick, which will afford him an opportunity to secure his NBA future for the next few seasons. Over the summer, he seemed genuinely grateful the James wanted him on the team after they had been adversaries – and sometimes bitter adversaries – earlier in his career.
Stephenson is playing inspired basketball so far this season and the Lakers are the beneficiaries of his solid contributions. The best guess is that he may be en route to having a career year.