Former Penn State basketball star giving back to Happy Valley, with help from NBA friends

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Lamar Stevens, left, is seen here during his playing days at Penn State.

Lamar Stevens wasn't happy with how his senior season ended.

The former Penn State men's basketball player — and current Cleveland Cavalier — closed out his career in 2020 with no NCAA Tournament after the Nittany Lions were a near lock to make it. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the sports world to a halt and an abrupt end to Stevens' illustrious career.

That lack of a real ending wasn't good enough for Stevens, who returned to the State College area this weekend for what he intends to make a yearly occurrence — the Lamar Stevens Basketball Academy. The academy, which was held at the Nittany Valley Sports Centre in Patton Township, was for children in grades 3-8 and featured opportunities to work with Stevens on the court.

"It's hard for me to not come back," Stevens told the Centre Daily Times. "I couldn't wait to come back. Just the way the season ended my senior year, I just feel bad for the community because I think we really would've done something special. This is something I always want to do. I want to do this every year."

Stevens wasn't alone at the event, either. He was joined Sunday at the camp by Atlanta Hawks wing Cam Reddish, and said he planned to make the NBA crowd even bigger in the future.

While that wasn't possible this year, Stevens was still able to get contributions from other NBA players to help kids participate over the weekend.

"There was a bunch of different guys in the NBA that I was gonna have come," Stevens said. "With COVID and trades, it was unfortunate they couldn't come. We had Larry Nance Jr. sponsor nine kids, Isaac Okoro sponsor one, Javale McGee sponsored four, Cam sponsored two. It was really good to have their support. ... That's definitely something I want to do, keep connecting that bridge from the NBA to State College."

Excited about PSU's future: Stevens has built relationships with those former and present Cavalier teammates in his first NBA season, but he initially built his game as a Nittany Lion under former head coach Pat Chambers. Now the program is under the stewardship of a new regime that's led by head coach Micah Shrewsberry.

Stevens got in the gym and worked out over the weekend with some of the new staff members, and was excited about the future of the program.

"I care about the program a lot," he said. "It was really cool (meeting the new staff). With them being NBA guys, and the connection they have from the jump. Coach Shrewsberry is a really good guy and I think he assembled a great staff. ... I'm excited for these guys. Talking to the guys on the team, they're excited about the staff. I wish the best for them, it was definitely cool just getting a different perspective. They're really good guys, they're welcoming, and they know the game. I'm excited to see what their future holds."

Still has friends with the Lions: Of course, Stevens still has a few friends at the program in Myles Dread, John Harrar and Seth Lundy, after all three played with the former NIttany Lion for at least a season on campus.

Even though he's moved on to the next level, Stevens said he didn't miss a beat with his former teammates when he spoke with them while he was in town.

"We all came here with the same goal of trying to change Penn State," Stevens said. "They saw the work ethic that I put in and tried to instill into the team. The culture that I wanted to build, we all were trying to build that together. I feel like they're super proud, like they're in the NBA, to an extent. ... We always check in with each other. They're definitely still family for sure."

Change in style at NBA level: Stevens said the group doesn't communicate as much as it used to when he was at Penn State, but it hasn't tarnished how close they are. He's done his best to carry the legacy they helped him build into the NBA where he's continuing to improve his game.

The jump to the league caused a drastic change in play style for Stevens after he was the primary initiator and scorer at all times for Penn State. He played nearly every minute of every game for the Nittany Lions, carrying the team as needed. Now, that's no longer the case and he's taken the time to adjust accordingly, especially from a playing time standpoint.

"Last year was weird," Stevens said. "There was no summer league, you got to camp and you jumped right into camp. You never had that experience to play and to learn the system, you were kind of just thrown right into the fire. ... There would be 10-15 games where I didn't play, and then somebody might get hurt and I might be in the first quarter of a game. I think it was just trying to stay consistent. I think that's something that Penn State really helped mold me into. Just being that guy that constantly brings it and never changes no matter what the result is."

A different player: His progression from isolation-heavy scorer in college to the player he is — and plans to become — in the NBA were a quick change for Stevens early last season, even though he didn't have as much time to prepare for the season due to the pandemic. Still, he's become a noticeably different player.

Instead of isolating and looking to get a shot up, he's learned to become a role player. The adjustment isn't an easy one, but is indicative of the type of player Stevens knows he can become. The NBA is a wing-heavy league that yearns for players who can make open threes and defend, but short on players who can do both capably.

Becoming that type is part of the plan for Stevens in the long run.

"Just being a threat from three," he said. "I think that's just the final piece that will get me to where I want to go. I want to buy into my role and be the best at my role. And I want to be a guy that's a 3-and-D guy. That's my biggest focus and I think that will help take my game to the next level."

State College a special place for him: Regardless of where his career goes from here, Stevens intends on making sure the State College community knows how much it means to him.

"I want to do this every year, come give back, show my face around campus, get with the team and just help this community grow," he said. "This community was so good to me, I want to be good to it."