Watch out, Lance Stephenson’s putting it all together
By Tim Bontemps
December 27, 2013 | 12:50am
Indiana Pacers' Lance Stephenson, left, pushes past Brooklyn Nets' Joe Johnson Photo: AP
It wasn’t long ago – a little more than 19 months – the most notable thing about Lance Stephenson’s NBA career was flashing LeBron James a choke sign.
After James missed a technical free throw in the third quarter of Indiana’s 94-75 win in Game 3 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Stephenson was caught on camera holding his neck on the sidelines. That, and later being body-slammed by Heat big man Dexter Pittman in the final moments of a blowout Heat win in Game 5, were his only significant contributions to a series in which he played just seven minutes in two games after appearing in 42 regular-season games as a second-year pro.
“Lance Stephenson? You want a quote about Lance Stephenson?” James asked reporters a couple of days later. “I’m not even going to give him the time. Knock it off.”
At the time, it was fair to wonder whether that would be the lasting legacy Stephenson — the Brooklyn native nicknamed “Born Ready” during his days growing up in Coney Island and starring at Lincoln High School — would leave behind from his NBA career.
Instead, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard got a chance to play for the Pacers last season when Danny Granger missed virtually the entire year due to injury. Stephenson took advantage, becoming a key cog in what turned into one of the NBA’s best starting units, and he has taken yet another leap this season – to the point where he has a legitimate case to make the All-Star team.
“No,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said earlier this week when asked whether he ever could have envisioned Stephenson growing into this role this quickly. “I say that with strong conviction. We had a great deal of belief in him, and that he would be a heck of a basketball player, but I did not envision it happening this quickly. From what he did last year to even taking a bigger step coming into this year.”
It was far from a sure thing Stephenson – considered to be a talented prospect, going back to his high school days in Brooklyn and his one year in college at Cincinnati – would ever come close to maximizing his talent after the Pacers took him 40th overall in the 2010 draft, 30 picks after taking franchise cornerstone Paul George.
In his first two years in the league, Stephenson was known more for the choke sign incident and an arrest in August 2010 – just two months after being drafted – on a third-degree assault charge after allegedly pushing his girlfriend down the stairs, a charge that was later dismissed.
But Larry Bird, who drafted Stephenson as president of the Pacers, stuck by him, even as Stephenson struggled to carve out a role through his first two seasons in the NBA.
Things changed last season when Granger missed all but five games because of patellar tendinosis. With the All-Star swingman sidelined, the Pacers shifted Stephenson from being a little-used rotation piece to a member of the starting lineup, and grew as the season went along.
Thanks to his athleticism and ball-handling ability, he slowly became able to take some of the play-making responsibilities out of Paul George’s hands and allow point guard George Hill – a career 37 percent 3-point shooter – more spot-up opportunities.
Stephenson finished the season with averages of 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists in just over 29 minutes per game, numbers that rose to 9.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in over 35 minutes in 19 playoff games as the Pacers pushed the eventual champion Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“I always knew I was talented,” Stephenson said. “I just needed the opportunity and confidence, just playing in a game, getting used to my teammates and getting used to the flow of the game. I always knew I could definitely play in an NBA type of game.”
After his breakout campaign, few expected Stephenson to take an even bigger leap this season. As Granger again has struggled to get on the court, any debate about whether or not he would reclaim his old spot in the starting lineup has gone away with Stephenson’s brilliant start.
Already with three triple-doubles to his credit, Stephenson – who poured in a career-high 26 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists in Monday’s blowout win in Brooklyn over the Nets – is averaging 13.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists in over 35 minutes per game. Even more impressive is his improved shooting — he’s averaging over 48 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3-point range while taking more shots overall and from behind the arc.
That has allowed the Pacers to slowly ease Granger back into action this month, while letting the same starting five of Hill, Stephenson, George, David West and Roy Hibbert lead the Pacers to a 23-5 record and the top spot in the Eastern Conference through the first two months of the season.
“Man, his rise has been great,” Hibbert said, before adding with a smile, “He’s a young guy … he’s like a bull in a china shop sometimes. I love the guy, and all he needed was a chance. Now he has a chance to solidify himself and make a statement and make a name for himself now.
“I’ve said it before, but he has three triple-doubles this year and the season is still early. He should be in consideration for an All-Star appearance, with our record as it is. I don’t think you should just give it to anybody and he’s definitely earned it. I don’t know anybody besides LeBron James that can just give you a triple-double like that.”
One of the most entertaining sights in the league is Stephenson corralling a loose ball or rebound and sprinting up the floor. With his combination of size, speed and solid frame, he’s one of the more devastating open-court players in the league. Stephenson’s herky-jerky movements and unpredictable decisions add to the entertainment factor.
Stephenson has forced his way into the All-Star conversation at guard in the Eastern Conference, marking his incredible 18-month transformation. After Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade – who will be the starting guards in New Orleans in February barring injury – Stephenson is vying for a backup spot with players such as Deron Williams, Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal, Orlando’s Arron Afflalo, Atlanta’s Jeff Teague and Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, another New York native.
“I’m just playing hard. I’m not really worried about that,” Stephenson said. “My goal is to just win games and help my teammates do that.”
Because of a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement due to Stephenson signing a four-year contract when the Pacers drafted him, when he hits free agency in July he’ll bypass restricted free agency and become an unrestricted free agent.
Stephenson will be a fascinating test case in free agency, given his youth, physical ability and rapid ascension. But after the Pacers gave him a chance and developed him into an impact player, Stephenson says he hopes he will be there for a long time to come.
“Definitely,” he said. “This is a great team. The future holds itself. I would love to stay here.”
Indiana happy under the radar
The Pacers were the league’s most glaring omission from the Christmas Day schedule and are largely missing from the national television schedule this season after their run to the conference finals last season, when George blossomed into a star and the Pacers gave the Heat all they could handle.
But George said that he and his teammates have been left to fly under the radar and been disrespected has helped fuel their terrific start.
Though George acknowledged he wasn’t expecting to be part of the Christmas Day schedule because the Pacers are a small-market team, he can see people beginning to respect what the team has accomplished in the past few seasons.
“I just think it’s coming around,” he said. “We understand we’re a small market and we’re not the OKC market yet, and we still have to build up to that.
“But I think we’re getting to it, and we’re starting to gain respect across the league.”