He was a playground legend on a national scale, with a body so mature that he was called Born Ready. But rest assured, he wasn’t ready to hit jumpers, play weakside defense, chase someone over a screen or make the quiet plays that contribute to winning.
Lance Stephenson’s legend has faded, but he has something better: A game so mature it’s beginning to look like he can be called Finally Ready.
Stephenson was quietly vital to the Pacers’ 97-91 victory over Phoenix Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, contributing 10 points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and just one turnover. “If we had a game ball, he would get it,” Paul George said. The argument could be made that he’s become the team’s most complete player. He’s certainly its most improved player, and perhaps its most intriguing as well.
Consider how far he’s come in his three NBA seasons, from scoring 37 points in his rookie season to 106 last season – 22 of them in the final meaningless regular season game – to now. He’s entrenched as a starter until Danny Granger returns, and has earned a place in coach Frank Vogel’s crunch time lineup.
“He’s a big part of what we’re doing,” Vogel said. “I trust him for the most part with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He’s making good decisions and defensively he continues to grow. And, his mistakes are limited.”
Consider that Stephenson has led the Pacers in assists in two of their last three games, has scored in double figures in three consecutive games, has not committed a turnover in four of the last six games (and had just one on Friday) and has totaled 34 assists, 15 steals and six turnovers in the last 11 games.
If that’s not ready, what is?
Vogel said Stephenson made the defensive play of the game in the fourth quarter when he dropped toward the lane from the opposite side of the ball, picked off Luis Scola’s pass, dribbled upcourt and slipped a one-handed bounce pass to George Hill for a dunk that gave the Pacers an 85-83 lead with 4:06 left.
“We’ve been on him for three years about his weak side,” Vogel said. “It was probably the best weakside play he’s made all year.”
The transformation from playground hero to NBA contributor has come through time spent on the practice court and in front of a video screen, most of it with assistant coach Brian Shaw. Stephenson has advanced from a player who missed all five three-point attempts as a rookie to one who hit just 4-of-30 last season to one who is hitting 38 percent of his attempts this season, second only to George.
Shaw compares Stephenson’s development as a shooter to that of Jason Kidd, who hit 27 percent of his three-pointers as a rookie but now ranks eighth in the NBA with 45 percent accuracy. Shaw also compares Stephenson’s overall game to that of Michael Ray Richardson, a powerful 6-5 shooting guard who lasted nine seasons in the NBA before succumbing to drug abuse.
Shaw, veteran of 14 NBA seasons, competes against him in a variety of shooting games designed to sharpen his competitive edge and calm his psyche. Shaw grew up in Oakland, on the opposite side of the country form Stephenson, but in a similar urban world.
“I joke with him all the time about New York City guards,” Shaw said. “Their reputation is they can handle the ball, do a lot of tricks with the ball, but they’re not known for their shooting ability. Most of the playground legends, their games haven’t translated to the NBA game. The whole And-1 revolution, he grew up in that, but that doesn’t translate.
“I’m constantly challenging him. I’ll say, ‘You’re from Brooklyn, you say you’re tough, show me. I’m a 46-year-old, out-of-shape coach, if you can’t beat me in a shooting game how do you expect to beat the guy you have to compete against?'”
Last season, Shaw won nearly every shooting contest against Stephenson. So far this season, Stephenson has won the majority of them. Friday, Stephenson reached his highest level yet in a game Shaw devised, and left the practice court feeling good about himself.
Not that it always carries over. Stephenson hit one of his two three-point shots, but missed two free throws when the Pacers were nursing a five-point lead with 49.4 seconds left.
“They came off wrong,” he said. “I’ll get in the gym tomorrow and work on my free throws.”
Stephenson talks like that all the time these days. Following Friday’s game, he was saying things like “It starts with defense,” and “I just try to do the little things,” and “I try to get everybody involved.” It’s unlikely that he ever uttered anything along those lines after playground games.
One year of college, two seasons of sitting on the bench and countless hours of practice and study with Shaw and other coaches have made a difference.
“It took me awhile,” Stephenson said. “It took me watching the games and not playing, and seeing how people move and seeing what certain players do to be effective on the floor.”
The Pacers are 17-12 and riding a four-game win streak heading into Saturday’s game at Atlanta, but have much to prove. The schedule is growing more difficult, with an onslaught of winning teams awaiting them, and they’ll have to get significantly better to compete for a championship. The most likely sources of improvement are the addition of Danny Granger, who’s expected to return early in February, and the continued development of the 22-year-olds, George and Stephenson.
The silver lining of Granger’s absence has been the opportunity it afforded Stephenson, who will go back to the bench if Granger come back healthy.
Will that be difficult after establishing himself as a starter?
“Oh, no,” he said. “If (the reserves) play together as a unit and play defense, we’re unstoppable.”