After flirting with the NBA over the past six weeks, Lamar Stevens has officially pulled his name out of the upcoming draft and will return for Penn State for his senior season.
Stevens' return could not have come at a better time, as the Nittany Lions were at risk of losing their top three scorers from last season after Rasir Bolton's transfer to Iowa State and Josh Reaves' graduation. Now, with their best player and first-team All-Big Ten selection back in the fold, the trajectory of Penn State's entire 2019-20 season has changed.
Lamar Stevens played somewhat of second fiddle to Tony Carr for his two seasons in Happy Valley. He was finally given the chance to blossom last season and boy did he deliver. He led the Nittany Lions in both points and rebounds, playing just about every position on the court at one point or another. He showed an ability to take over games and was a steadying force in what was an exceedingly unsteady season.
Stevens' return means that Penn State basketball can be a threat to just about everyone in the Big Ten. The conference is experiencing a lot of turnover, with Michigan and Nebraska breaking in new coaches and conference stars like Ethan Happ and Carsen Edwards out the door. This could be a bizarre season for some teams used to consistent success, so it's the perfect opportunity for Penn State to make a statement and finally break through into the conference's upper tier.
Last season, Stevens was the leader of a very inexperienced team, especially at guard. Now, that team is another year older and another year wiser. Even with the loss of Bolton, Myles Dread and Myreon Jones proved they can be a more than capable backcourt when paired with Jamari Wheeler. Add in sharpshooter Izaiah Brockington (41.5% on threes in 2017-18) coming off a transfer, and you have the perfect guys to pair with Stevens' attack-the-rim style of play. Penn State's offense was not able to spread itself out enough last season, leading to sloppy play and a lot of turnovers in the paint. Putting the right pieces around Stevens will be the key to Penn State avoiding some offensive woes.
Stevens had to play more minutes at center last season than just about everyone was comfortable with. Thankfully, the Nittany Lions have Mike Watkins, John Harrar, and Trent Buttrick all back for another run. Barring injury, they should be able to anchor the defense, preventing Stevens from getting trapped down there against guys he has no business defending. Even often out of position, his 22 steals were good for third most on the team last season. Now that he will be spending more time against opponents his own size, both those and his blocks should increase.
Then there's the matter of who will be the other forward aside of Stevens. Enter Seth Lundy. Like Stevens, Lundy made a name for himself in the Philadelphia Catholic League with Roman Catholic. He's an athletic wing who can do just about everything you need a guy his size to do on a basketball court. He's the kind of recruit who Penn State can build it's future around and now he has a great teacher in Stevens.
All of these pieces could have come together on their own and probably have had a fine season. They probably would have finished out of the Big Ten cellar, but not by much. Stevens takes them from near the bottom to the near top. He is Penn State's X-factor and will be for the entire season. The pieces to the puzzle were all there, Stevens' return could be the one that finally puts the picture together.
For as much as Stevens' return means for the team on the court, it means even more for Pat Chambers. This is now the most talented team he has ever put together. It's now or never – Chambers either makes the tournament, or he won't be the coach at Penn State come April. He's fallen short when the expectations were high in the past, but for seemingly the first time, some offseason news bounced Penn State's way. There's finally one thing Penn State has in common with the who's who of college basketball: its tourney or bust.