09/22/2009 3:38 PM ET
Stephenson becoming a gym rat Bearcat
With his past behind him, the phenom is soaring
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Lance Stephenson is staying humble as he readies himself for a drive through the Big East. (AP)

It was the last day of the Mick Cronin Basketball Camp this summer at the University of Cincinnati and the young campers were finally allowed to get autographs from the returning college players.

The youngsters excitedly waited on line for players like Deonta Vaughn and Yancy Gates to sign T-shirts and pieces of paper.

Off on the side of the gym, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound Cincinnati freshman fired up jump shots in obscurity, nobody bothering him, no one asking for his autograph.

"I had to tell a couple of my buddies, 'Pull your kids out of the line and go get his autograph,'" Cronin said.

The freshman was Brooklyn's Lance Stephenson, and Cronin knew the youngsters might want to meet a potential future NBA player.

"There's all my returning players signing autographs and there's in my opinion the No. 1 high school player in America over there shooting jump shots," Cronin said. "A future NBA player and the kids don't even know who he is. He's not signing one autograph."

Awaiting word from the NCAA: Yes, Lance Stephenson -- star of an Internet reality show, the all-time leading scorer in New York State prep history and the most-hyped player to come out of New York in the last five years -- is happily living in obscurity on the Cincinnati campus.

"For him it's nice to get out of the fishbowl," Cronin said.

"People aren't watching his every move. He's definitely enjoying the fact that he can just wake up, worry about hitting class, hitting the weight room, hitting the gym and going back home and nobody's bothering him."

With Stephenson set to begin classes on Wednesday, the NCAA is still investigating his amateur status. Stephenson was the subject of the reality series "Born Ready," which began on the Internet and then landed on MTV, and he also appeared in the film "Gunnin' for That #1 Spot," directed by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch.

As a result of the NCAA issues, Cincinnati officials say they won't make Stephenson available to the media until sometime in October. SNY.tv broke the news of his commitment in late June, meaning it could be more than three months between the time he committed and the time he comments publicly on that commitment.

"We're working through it," Cronin said of the NCAA investigation. "Hopefully it's done sooner rather than later."

Stephenson in July pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in the groping case of a 17-year-old Lincoln High girl, but that matter is behind him.

"It's closed," said his attorney, Alberto Ebanks. "He was a youthful offender. He doesn't have a crime on his record. He doesn't owe the state of New York anything. They don't owe him anything. It's a closed case. It's behind him."

Bringing 'that New York City attitude': Stephenson enjoyed a highly decorated prep career at Lincoln, where he averaged 28.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 3.9 assists to earn Class AA New York State Sports Writers Association Player of the Year honors his senior year.

He also led Lincoln to an unprecedented four straight PSAL championships.

He has repeatedly indicated that he would like play in the NBA, perhaps after just one year on campus.

"Of course," he said earlier this year. "That's what I'm playing hard for. That's one of my goals. If I make it to the NBA, that's going to change my whole life around."

Still, those close to Stephenson say he is enjoying his new life on campus.

"He's certainly happy to have some of these problems behind him," Ebanks said. "He has a fresh start and he's really in a position to show the world what he's all about.

"He really likes the program, the coaching staff, the facilities. He's made friends on campus. He's adjusting to college life. It's been a really good transition for him. For some kids it's not. This is the shot in the arm that this kid needed. He's in a situation to really play at the next level."

Stephenson is rooming with White Plains native Sean Kilpatrick, a 6-4 shooting guard.

"Lance is more of a quiet kid," Cronin said. "'SK' is extremely outgoing. They're both from the city. They've definitely bonded in that area. One thing I've asked them to do is bring that New York City attitude to our program. Never back down. Always rise to the occasion and take a back seat to nobody when it comes to playing."

Cronin says Stephenson has peppered him with questions since his arrival, mostly relating to how good the team can be and how much success it can have in the Big East.

Cincinnati went 18-14 a year ago and finished 10th in the Big East at 8-10.

With the return of Vaughn and Gates and the addition of Stephenson, many observers expect Cincinnati to make a major jump in the Big East standings this year.

Apparently the networks think so, too. ESPN2 will showcase Cincinnati against Vanderbilt in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 23 and the Bearcats will also host Pittsburgh on Jan. 4 in the first Big Monday game on ESPN.

"There are some very experienced teams and it's not the teams that were at the top of the conference last year," said Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon, adding that Cincinnati was one of those experienced teams.

Stephenson doesn't have college experience, but he does have experience winning.

"That's probably something he hasn't gotten enough credit for, the winning he did at Lincoln," Cronin said.

Working on fundamentals: Still, there have been concerns about Stephenson's on-court behavior, his maturity level and his ability to blend in with a team.

Some go so far as to say he will split the Cincinnati program apart. Others believe he can help the Bearcats achieve big things.

"My message to him is you've got to make your teammates better," Cronin said. "Great players elevate their teammates. They don't just score points or make assists. They help other guys get more confident, raise them to a higher level. Even though he's a freshman, I think it's something he can help us with."

Still, Cronin says, Stephenson needs to improve his footwork, technique and fundamentals, like any freshman.

"You've got to the shoot the ball the same way every time," Cronin said. "You can't fall away one time, change the way you step into your shot. You've got to learn to be consistent."

"For him, let's just be honest; his goals are a little bit higher than the average guy coming into college basketball."

Cronin said he isn't worried that the team might be splintered by having multiple guys trying to make the NBA after this season in Stephenson, Vaughn and Gates.

"All you have to do is look at the NBA Draft and teams that have three and four guys get drafted are the teams that are winning and going to Final Fours," he said. "We're not going to worry about not enough basketballs [to go around]. We need to win some games first."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com.
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