In a recent win over the Utah Jazz, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Lamar Stevens had one of the best nights of his career. Traditionally a power forward starting at the two in place of Isaac Okoro, Stevens put up a career-high 23 points along with 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. Stevens was also key in slowing down Jazz superstar Donovan Mitchell, who ended up having one of his worst shooting nights since the start of the new year.
After the game, plenty of accolades came pouring in for Stevens. But, it was Cleveland superstar Darius Garland who gave the strongest endorsement, saying that Stevens was the heart and soul of the team defensively.
"It's something I definitely don't take for granted," said Stevens to Right Down Euclid. "I think just the way coming into the league, being undrafted, working my way up from a two-way, it's definitely been a ramped-up process for me. So it's been great to just have that confidence and that my teammates believe in me. That my coaches see the effort and the care I have for the team and for the guys."
Clearly, Stevens has fans within the Cavaliers organization. But, they pale in comparison to his grandma, who is arguably his biggest fan. Last season, Stevens went viral when he shared a text from his grandma after he spent the night defending LA Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard. Stevens shared that his grandma, who he calls "Mom Mom" watches every game this season and is thrilled about both the team's success and his individual success as well.
Not only has Stevens been a key part of this turnaround for the Cavaliers on the court, but he has also been huge culturally this season as well. Sure, he's been held out for the last few games due to left knee soreness but, he's still able to make an impact while on the bench. By now, you've probably already seen the numerous videos online of Cleveland players and coaches barking both in the locker room and during games. Due to the close proximity to the Browns and the Dawg Pound, it's safe to assume it came from that. But, in fact, it actually started with Stevens during his rookie season.
"It got started really in the preseason when I wasn't playing," shared Stevens. "I would be on the bench and I would always be talking trash, just trying to get into guys' heads and whatever. Or I'd be talking to my teammates, trying to get them going. And it happened this year and we kind of were just trying to intimidate somebody, we'd just bark at them and it kind of caught on and everybody was like, 'Yeah, we some dogs. The way we play, we play like dogs.'"
"Even going back to college, my college coach and I, we found a saying that said, 'Hungry dogs run faster.' So, I think that's something that's kind of stuck with me and I think that's something we've kind of embraced as a team now. Just being those hungry dogs, something to prove every night. And when people come to Cleveland, it's not an easy win anymore. You going to come and you going to get a fight until the clock hits zero."
The way that Stevens has ascended the ranks into becoming a staple part of Cavaliers basketball in no time at all frankly is amazing. Despite being seven points shy of becoming Penn State's all-time leading scorer, Stevens went undrafted in 2020. Soon after, he signed with Cleveland, which he and his agent felt was the best team for him, on a two-way contract and prove that he belonged in the NBA. Stevens shared with Right Down Euclid that he didn't let this deter him though. Instead, he just viewed it as another step in his basketball story.
"I had this delusional faith because every year from my freshman year, I thought I was going to be a one-and-done, said Stevens. "Then I thought I was going to be a two-and-done, three-and-done. After my fourth year, I was like, 'There's no question I'm going to be in the league.' Then, to go through draft night and not get drafted, but still have an opportunity, I still was like, 'I know I'm going to be in the NBA. I know I belong.'"
"I felt like that just was a part of my story. From high school to college and to prove that I was a Big 10 player to just constantly trying to prove myself, and I think that was just a part of my story. So, going undrafted wasn't that hard for me. I adjusted quickly. I really looked within myself and thought, 'There are things I need to get better at, obviously. And that's what I'm going to do. I'm just going to get better at them and I'm going to get myself that opportunity.'"
Where Stevens first looked to improve was on the defensive side of the ball. He shared that during his time with the Nittany Lions, he was usually put on the opponent's worst player for the majority of the game. Stevens went on to say that the only time he was put on the opposing team's best player was in the closing moments of a game whenever the Lions needed a stop.
Stevens shared he needed to improve was being both multifaceted and reliable at any given moment on defense. That meant asking him to defend any position on the floor at any time. Soon after coming into training camp and working with Cleveland's coaching staff, Stevens learned he was more than capable of doing both. He then slowly, but surely worked his way into the team's rotation on some nights and, in turn, you saw him defending stars like Leonard while in Los Angeles. Stevens shared that was one of the first moments he felt like he proved he belonged in the league.
During Stevens's rookie season Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff instilled the confidence in him and Stevens embraced and ran with it. So much so that despite the fact he was on a two-way deal, Stevens never saw a minute of G League play. Funnily enough, sources at the Cleveland Charge shared with me that they have a collection of his jerseys packed away in a box if Stevens ever wants them.
But, Stevens was needed by the Cavaliers during his rookie season and now, at times, starting at the two for the main club. After playing power forward at college and having to transition to small forward in the NBA, being asked to spend nights starting at shooting guard seems like a tough ask. Not for Stevens. He shared that he's just doing whatever is needed to help the team succeed.
"I think it's really just been just stepping up to the plate," said Stevens. "I work my ass off every day in the summer. I'm super dedicated to this game. So I think that when the coaching staff threw me the idea, it was definitely a little different at first and something I had to get adjusted to. But I felt like I just had to step up. That's what my team needed from me. So I'm going to just go and just do my best and it was able to work so far. It was definitely an adjustment at first, but I felt like I was able to figure things out a little bit."
While Stevens is passionate about Cleveland's success on the floor, he has things off the court that drive him as well. During his freshman year at Penn State, he was introduced to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, an organization the basketball program is heavily involved with. Stevens would spend time with children with special needs, playing games and hanging out with them. But, one of his favorite moments early into his time at Happy Valley was the team's annual Buddy Walk.
Every October, the basketball team takes part in the Buddy Walk, which promotes the acceptance and inclusion of those with Down syndrome. This event resonated with Stevens and gave him perspective on things he may not have noticed in his own life. That's what led him to author Lamar’s Climb: A Journey to Happy Valley, which features illustrations by six local children and adults with Down syndrome. The 16-page book, which helps teach state geography, also tells Stevens's story from high school in Philadelphia to his collegiate career at Penn State.
“It was just a big honor for me,” said Stevens. "I had been around these kids since freshman year, and I had developed a great relationship with them. Honestly, the book was amazing to do. The best part about the book was at half time all the kids that participated in illustrating the book got to come to half court to be recognized by the soldout crowd. Everybody just cheered for them and they were just so happy and really seeing that smile on their face made the whole thing worth it. And just seeing them get that spotlight that they deserved, it was really an amazing moment."
Stevens's time working with children and adults with special needs is something he is still passionate about even after he left Happy Valley. He shared that his time with them made him a better person and it's what makes him want to continue his work as a professional. He also hopes to continue "Everyone Is Awesome" Day, a celebration of all individuals with special needs, as well.
At Penn State, "Everyone Is Awesome" Day had more than 70 organizations supporting individuals with special needs are involved with activities pregame, throughout the contest and halftime. If Stevens could, he would love to bring something similar to fruition with the Cavaliers.
"Absolutely. I think that'd be amazing," said Stevens. "I would love to do that and I would do anything that I could to make that happen for sure."
When Stevens went undrafted in 2020, he was determined to prove he belonged in the NBA. Two seasons in with Cleveland and he's already done that. He's made the Cavaliers a better team both on and off the court due to his passion and playstyle. As time goes on, he'll make the community a better place as well with his off-court passions focused on helping, and supporting, those with special needs.