One game isn’t a large sample size, but it’s a start, and that’s what Lance Stephenson and the Indiana Pacers will go with.
Coach Frank Vogel inserted the third-year guard into the starting lineup in Saturday night’s game against Washington at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in an effort to reorganize a struggling team.
Stephenson showed so well to open the game — a 3-pointer and five points while playing the entire first quarter — that he was back on the floor for most of the fourth quarter. When the Pacers learned that leading scorer Danny Granger would miss time with an injured knee, Vogel told his wing players that finishing games would be more important than starting them.
Look at Stephenson now: He did both in the 89-85 win over the Wizards, and it seems he accomplished enough to keep those spots when the Pacers begin a week with five games Tuesday night against Toronto.
“I felt good, felt comfortable, very confident,” Stephenson said after scoring 12 points. “I’m just trying to create (opportunities) for my team, hit the open shots.”
He did that, making five of his seven field goals, including a pair of 3-pointers, with four rebounds and two assists. What Vogel liked as much as anything: only a single turnover in 30-plus minutes of action.
“Offensively, he just needs to play fairly mistake-free basketball,” Vogel said. “He’s got to limit his turnovers, create for others and play within the system, and he’s been doing a good job of that.
“Statistically, he’s been our best wing option with Danny out.”
Granger is expected to miss up to three months, so the minutes he won’t be taking are there for Stephenson and others to assume. Forward David West believes Stephenson, who is still just 22 years old, can grow in the job.
“He’s got an opportunity,” West said. “We’re going to continue to trust him, and as the year goes on he’s going to continue to improve.
“But it’s not just him. We have to improve around him, as a group.”
The Pacers are 3-4.
Starting a game was something new for Stephenson, whose last meaningful start was in his final game at the University of Cincinnati in 2010. Yes, he played 34 minutes and scored 22 points in a starting role April 25 against Chicago, but that was a mop-up game to end the regular season.
That doesn’t really count, and he knows it. Saturday’s game did.
“It’s been three years since I (started),” he said, laughing. “But I think I needed to be held back, to watch film and learn the game instead of coming out rushing things.
“I feel good now.”
Vogel said Stephenson, a sturdy 6-5, 228-pound playmaker, can do his best work on defense. Vogel compared him to Tyler Hansbrough, a pesky presence on the defensive end who keyed Saturday’s momentum switch.
“Obviously they’re different creatures, but when he’s on the court, the energy of everybody else out there picks up,” Vogel said of Stephenson. “He’s an under-your-skin guy defensively.
“He’s not always in the right spot, but he’s getting better. He’s a presence, a physical presence out there.”
Point guard George Hill likes the combination of Stephenson’s attributes so long as he contributes them consistently.
“He can do multiple things,” Hill said. “He can rebound, he can shoot it better now; his shot is getting a lot better. He’s strong, physical, can go to the basket. He can put it on the floor, pass. So, he brings another option to create.”