Raising Champions Alum Contributing Early in the Season

 

Somewhere, Larry Bird is smiling. And not just because he doesn’t have to report to an office on Monday morning.

His project, the one he drafted in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft when it appeared nobody else would take even that slight risk, is looking more and more like a player, one capable of contributing in meaningful moments rather than garbage time or garbage games.

Lance Stephenson played 32 minutes in the Pacers’ 106-98 double-overtime victory over Sacramento at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Saturday night, including the final 22. He scored 10 points, hitting a three-pointer in the first overtime, and while he didn’t exactly play a lead role in coaxing the victory before a sellout crowd in the home opener, he didn’t do anything to delay it, either.

That qualifies as a significant step forward for the third-year guard, who quite obviously displays more confidence and equally obviously has the trust of the coaches and his teammates. That’s a chicken-egg thing, impossible to figure which came first. It’s a simultaneous process, really, one nudged along by Stephenson’s improved maturity and work ethic and Danny Granger’s mysterious left knee.

“His maturity level is creeping up there and we’re showing confidence in him,” teammate David West said. “He’s a good player and he can help us.”

The first three games of an 82-game season don’t qualify as a scientific poll, but they have revealed promising results for Stephenson. He’s played 70 minutes off the bench, averaged 10 points and hit half of his shots from the field and three-point range. He’s showed noticeable aggression at both ends, and played fearlessly without playing too recklessly. At least no more than anyone else on a team that already has committed 62 turnovers.

His three-point shooting is worth a raised eyebrow or two. He hit a big one from the left corner on a kick-out pass from George Hill midway through the first overtime to give the Pacers a 94-91 lead. It was his fourth of the season, matching the number he had hit throughout his first two seasons combined, when he made just 4-of-35 attempts. He didn’t raise expectations for this season when he hit 1-of-11 three-pointers in the preseason, but suddenly he looks like a legit shooter.

His shooting form in early pre-game warmups was well above average on Saturday, and so were the results. Now that coach Frank Vogel has settled on Stephenson as a shooting guard, that will be a handy asset as he tries to carve out playing time.

“My three-ball shot wasn’t falling, so I got with (assistant coach Brian) Shaw and we just kept shooting,” Stephenson said. “I’m trying to keep shooting and get my percentage up.”

Stephenson figures to be the player who benefits most from the absence of Granger, whose future remains murky. Granger, the Pacers’ leading scorer the past five seasons, played the final two preseason games and appeared to be ready to start in Wednesday’s season-opener, but was declared out indefinitely on Tuesday after experiencing more pain in his knee during Monday’s practice. He has received one “second” opinion and is due for more feedback before a decision is made. At this point it appears the possibilities range from a short recovery period to surgery.

Gerald Green, who scored 17 points against the Kings, has been starting in Granger’s spot, but Stephenson got the call for crunch time on Saturday. He had earned that with his aggression, a byproduct of his confidence, and it showed as soon as Stephenson entering the game at the start of the second quarter. He hit a 19-foot jumper 30 seconds into the period. Four minutes into it, he took the ball fullcourt for a layup that drew a foul and set up a three-point play. Five minute later he grabbed a rebound in traffic, raced downcourt and left a pass in the lane for Paul George, whose layup gave the Pacers an eight-point lead and forced a Sacramento timeout.

All in all, Stephenson finished with the game’s best plus-minus rating, a plus-22. The Pacers outscored Sacramento 38-18 in the second period, when Stephenson played 10 1/2 minutes, and were outscored 24-18 in the third when he didn’t play at all. It wasn’t entirely a coincidence.

“He plays with great energy,” Vogel said. “He’s a presence out there on both ends. He’s not always in the right spot on the defensive end, but he really competes on the ball, really competes on his man. That changes things defensively for us in a positive way.”

Defense? Three-point shooting? Those are new concepts for the former street-ball king from Brooklyn, who was branded Born Ready in high school but turned out to be Not Ready for the NBA when he was drafted after one season at the University of Cincinnati.

Now, perhaps, he’s closing in on Finally Ready.

“I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot and it’s time to show everybody what I learned. I feel very confident.”

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