How JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson Have Emerged as Lakers Stars

Jonathan Sherman
9 Min Read

This summer, the Los Angeles Lakers were expected to sign or trade for All-Stars like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to surround LeBron James with premier talent. Instead, as the summer progressed, fans were surprised and perturbed to find that team president Magic Johnson was instead targeting and signing free agents such as JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley.

All four players are known not only for their abilities as basketball players, but for their antics on and off the court as well. Those antics earned the group of Lakers free agents the name “The Meme Team.” While they were the butt of many offseason jokes, two of the members of the Meme Team have elevated their play to the point where they are now being considered amongst the most impactful members of the current Lakers roster.

Those two players are McGee and Stephenson.

Both players have been lauded throughout their respective careers for their raw physical ability, but have also been lambasted for their inability to reach their full potential. It seems as though the added pressure and responsibility that comes with playing on the NBA’s most iconic organization has motivated both players to finally put it all together on the court.

While the Lakers have had a fairly shaky start to the 2018-19 season, and currently hold a record of 2-5, McGee and Stephenson have been two serious bright spots.

Here’s what the two players have already achieved during their time in the purple and gold:

JaVale McGee

JaVale McGee Los Angeles Lakers

Since being drafted into the NBA in 2008, McGee has spent more time as a laughing stock than anything else. Entire highlight reels have been posted to YouTube documenting some of his most boneheaded plays. On top of that, his career averages are far less than impressive, with just 7.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Considering his 7-foot frame and insane 7-foot-6 wingspan, those numbers seem to indicate that McGee is simply a lazy big man who never had the dedication to take advantage of his raw ability.

His time with the Lakers thus far has proven to be something else entirely. Before Saturday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, McGee had recorded five double-digit scoring nights in a row. His current season averages sit at 15.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game.

He isn’t only having an impact on the stat sheet either. Multiple times this season, McGee has shown an impressive combination of athleticism and awareness to help make plays on both ends of the court.

One such moment came in the Lakers’ second game of the season against the Houston Rockets. In the second quarter, McGee took advantage of his long legs and closed the gap to keep P.J. Tucker from taking an uncontested 3-point shot. Moments later, he recovered quickly enough to get back and block an alley-oop attempt by Clint Capela. He then grabbed the board and passed to teammate Brandon Ingram before transitioning to the offensive side of the court.

McGee is helping cover for his younger teammates on the defensive side and is doing the same on the offensive side as well. The Lakers are currently one of the better teams in the league when it comes to points per miss, and that is thanks much in part to McGee’s ability to grab offensive boards near the basket (nearly half of his rebounds are coming on the offensive side of the court).

While the Lakers have yet to find a clear starting lineup, McGee is making a case to be a crucial member of the Lakers’ rotation for the remainder of the season.

McGee commented on what he thinks the Lakers can achieve this season.

“The only thing that can stop us is us,” McGee said. “We just have to make sure we stay focused through the season. This is the season to do it.”

While a championship this season seems rather unlikely, McGee’s play definitely increases the chances no matter how slim.

Lance Stephenson

Lance Stephenson Lakers

The talented journeyman has played for six teams in his eight-year career, but it was something of a shock to see Stephenson agree to terms with the Lakers this summer. The reason for that is because until this season, he fashioned himself to be one James’ primary rivals in the NBA. In multiple postseason matchups, Stephenson made a name for himself as one of the few players who has been able to get under James’ skin.

Just as there are highlight reels of McGee’s miscues, there are also videos that document all of the times James and Stephenson got into it when they were on opposing teams. Now, the four-time MVP is singing Stephenson’s praises.

“Make ’em dance Lance. Make ’em dance Lance sparked us,” James told TNT’s Kristen Ledlow following an impressive win over the then undefeated Denver Nuggets. “Make ’em dance Lance sparked our win tonight. The guy was unbelievable coming off what he played last night in Phoenix, and he picked up right where he left off from, and then we just used the crowd after Lance got going and got this win.”

The Lakers have won just two games so far this season, but in both wins, Stephenson has played a pivotal role. In their first win of the season, Stephenson recorded a team-high 23 points despite playing just 25 minutes. He shot 10-of-14 from the field that night and was a spark plug for the Lakers offense.

In the following game, Stephenson brought theLos Angeles back from the brink of defeat when he scored eight of his 12 total points in just over a minute to bring the Lakers from down eight points with 6:11 left in the game to down just two points with 4:33 left on the clock.

His averages on the season  so far are quite a bit better than his career averages. Through his career, Stephenson has averaged 8.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. So far in the 2018-19 season, he’s averaging 11.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. It is a small sample size, but still signifies an impressive improvement.

The story coming into this seasons for the Lakers was primarily surrounding how James would play alongside the talented youngsters on the roster such as Lonzo Ball, Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. It was assumed that James would have to be the sole leader for these young players as they try to usher in a new era of Lakers dominance.

It now seems, for this season at least, the James will not have to be the only leader on this squad. Both Stephenson and McGee will be able to lead by example and continue to help this team compete in the Western Conference.

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Jonathan is a freelance writer, filmmaker, and passionate fan of the NBA. In the past Jonathan has covered politics, entertainment, travel, and more. He is a proud contributor of Lakers Daily.