Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Lamar Stevens came to the Rumph Classic for the first time some years back as one of hundreds of youngsters in attendance looking for a chance to see a few NBA players swing by the all-star charity tournament, which a decade-or-so ago was still growing into the must-see summer event it’s become over its 17 years.
He remembered watching the Morris twins, Markeiff and Marcus, who’ve been regular participants over the years, and who have helped the event attract the likes of James Harden, John Wall and more to play in the annual weekend-long affair.
Now, he’s become one of Those Players, even if that reality hasn’t quite sunk in just yet. He’s the one that has kids coming up to him after games, looking for photos and autographs, their precious few moments with another local rising star.
Lamar Stevens (above) is entering his third NBA season this fall. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
“It feels good. It’s surreal, I dreamed of these moments,” Stevens said on Friday after scoring 17 points for CTC in a loss to Blue Magic. “I don’t take any of it for granted, I’m grateful to be here, grateful to be able to play the game I love. It’s all I could really ask for.
“It means a lot, just the unity of the city, everybody coming together for a great cause, being able to play in front of these kids, it means everything to me. I was once a kid in these stands, watching older guys playing, the guys who motivated me to be where I am.”
Stevens’ role as one of the big names in the 2022 edition of the Rumph Classic was cemented over the last couple years, when he went from an undrafted free agent out of Penn State (in 2020) to an NBA rotation member. After first signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers on a two-way contract, he showed enough during his rookie season (4.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg) to earn himself a multi-year contract with the Cavs worth over $4 million over three years.
It helped that Stevens joined a rebuilding Cavs squad, one which went 22-50 in his first season and then added Evan Mobley with the No. 3 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft as well as Ricky Rubio and Lauri Markkanen via trade. They doubled their win total this past season, going 44-38 and earning the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, but losing a pair of play-in games as they failed to qualify for the NBA Playoffs.
“[Rajon] Rondo was great for me last year, Taurean Prince was great, JaVale McGee was great when they were there […] Kevin Love is great, too,” he said, adding “right now, we’re all young, so we’re all teaching each other.
Stevens’ second NBA season stats were overall a small bump from those the year before: 6.1 ppg and 2.6 rpg, though those also came with a slight uptick in minutes. But he clearly improved as the year went on; after only spare minutes at the beginning of the season, he began seeing regular playing time on Dec. 30, averaging 18.6 minutes in 43 games (12 starts) over the final three months of the year.
Over the last 18 games of the season, he averaged 9.2 ppg and 3.8 rpg, making more than 51% of his shots; his 3-point shooting (26.3%) remains a work in progress. His best game (23 points, seven rebounds vs. Utah) came before his late-season sustained strong play, when he scored 15-or-more points five times in a nine-game span.
Stevens (above) helped Roman Catholic to PIAA Class AAAA and Catholic League championships during his senior year in 2015-16. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
“Probably when I went undrafted, is when I realized I needed to lock in some more. I wasn’t who I thought I was,” Stevens said. “I realized it was time to turn it up even more.”
Now 25 years old, Stevens is at the age where it’s time to make a move in the NBA, to go from a bench piece to into the starting lineup on a regular basis, to show if he can be a featured scorer on a championship squad.
He’s already proved to himself that he can hang with the best in the world.
“The first time I played LeBron, that was kinda like ‘oh, shit, I’m playing LeBron,’ but the next time I played him, I realized we’re on the same level, we’re both here playing in the league, and I was able to have a really great game,” he said, referring to a March matchup against the Lakers where he scored 16 points (8-12 FG) and grabbed six rebounds in 34 minutes. “And that’s when I realized, we’re all here. It’s me vs. you.”
While he enjoys the NBA lifestyle and tries to show he’s capable of being a valuable rotation piece — or more — for a title contender, Stevens hasn’t forgotten his longtime friends. He said he still keeps in touch with former Penn State and Roman Catholic teammate Tony Carr and their mutual friend and current G League guard Josh Sharkey (Archbishop Carroll), with whom they began as freshmen at Abington Friends before going their separate ways.
“We really just talk about our different experiences and the different things that we’re doing,” Stevens said. “Try to stay in contact, keep each other motivated, letting each other know what we’re capable of doing.”
His time at the Rumph Classic gave him a couple weeks to be back in his hometown, to catch up with friends and family — and, of course, enjoy a few hometown favorites.
“I’ve been liking Larry’s Cheesesteaks lately,” he laughed. “I just try to continue to work, really. I always like coming home to see my family, spend time with my little sister and little cousins. But the work doesn’t stop.
“It’s a great city, man,” he added. “When you’re in it, a lot of people who are in it, they don’t know how great it is. But the city has everything: diversity, food, places just to chill and walk around, it’s a beautiful city. I definitely appreciate it a lot more [coming back].”
From that freshman year at Abington Friends through two seasons at The Haverford School and then finishing up at Roman with a state championship in 2016, to playing four years at Penn State and becoming one of the program’s all-time greats, to now making his way in the Association, Stevens has come a long way in his basketball journey.
There’s still a lot that’s familiar about him, from his easygoing off-court demeanor to his physical on-court presence, his ability to score from the mid-range and closer, guarding everybody on the court.
But he’s ‘A Guy’ now, one of the few the next generation come to see, in that rare air of elite basketball players who are in the best league in the world, in a select group of Philly alumni who’ve made it, if not to the peak, at least to the camp before the final climb.
“[It’s] just my dreams starting to come true,” he said. “I’m on my way to being who I wanted to be, but there’s more work to be done. There’s definitely a feeling of satisfaction, but there’s still more work to be put in.”