Lamar Stevens is staying in State College.
Stevens — a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches in 2018-19 — announced Wednesday evening that he would return to Penn State, withdrawing his name from NBA draft consideration six weeks after making himself eligible.
“I want to finish what I started in Happy Valley,” Stevens said on a conference call Wednesday night.
The senior forward — who averaged 19.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in 2018-19 — retained an agent after the season and, under a new rule, was allowed to test the NBA waters with an option to come back. He did not receive an invite to the NBA Combine but worked out for six NBA teams: the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings.
Stevens had to decide by midnight Thursday if he would continue to pursue his NBA dream into the June draft. Instead, he opted to push Penn State’s program forward.
“It was a tough decision for me,” Stevens said. “But I wanted to come back to Penn State and finish what I started and take this team to new heights.”
Specifically, Stevens wants the Nittany Lions to reach the NCAA tournament. Penn State has never competed in The Big Dance in Pat Chambers’ eight seasons at the helm. The last time the Nittany Lions made March Madness was 2011, when Shaka Smart’s VCU reached the Final Four and Kemba Walker’s UConn cut down the nets. So, yes, it’s been a while.
However, Stevens’ return to Penn State is a significant win for not only a fan base deprived of non-NIT postseason success, but also Chambers, who answered questions last season about his job security while compiling a 14-18 record.
Penn State’s basketball program — one that lost Tony Carr early to the NBA this time last year — would have been staring at another sub-.500 season without Stevens. Now, the star player is back and eying an end to the Nittany Lions’ tourney drought.
“I think this team should do it. We’re extremely capable,” the North Wales native said. “That’s a huge goal. One of many, but definitely something I’ve highlighted. ... Now it’s time to put in the work and get that.”
Stevens knows, too, what work he has to put in. He better understands his game after going through the draft evaluation process — after completing individual drills and going up against the likes of Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Auburn’s Jared Harper and UCF’s Aubrey Dawkins.
Stevens received “direct feedback from high-level NBA personnel” in regards to what he brings to the table. The verdict? “I’m an extremely versatile and elite defender,” he said. “They say I have an NBA frame, NBA athleticism. I finish well around the rim. And when I get to my mid-range spots, I’m good at scoring the ball from there.”
The one negative that popped up throughout the process was Stevens’ 3-point shooting, which is understandable. The forward connected on 22 percent (20 of 91) of his treys, which ranked 64th in the Big Ten last season.
Still, Stevens is confident that, with more time in the gym, his shot will improve in 2019-20. He feels the same way about Penn State as a whole, too.
Do-it-all senior Josh Reaves is gone. So is freshman guard Rasir Bolton (11.6 ppg in 2018-19) after he announced his transfer to Iowa State on Tuesday. But center Mike Watkins (7.8 ppg, 7.4 rbg), defensive-minded senior Jamari Wheeler and up-and-coming sophomore guard Myles Dread (8.3 ppg) have valuable experience, and St. Bonaventure transfer Izaiah Brockington will be eligible after sitting out in 2018-19.
In Stevens’ eyes, there’s reason for optimism in 2019-20 — even after concluding a losing season just three months ago.
“I’m not happy with how things went last year,” Stevens said. “Coming back with Coach Chambers and I being on the same page and with the rest of our teammates, I feel like we can really accomplish something this year.”