Since using a second-round pick on Stephenson in 2010, Larry Bird has been the lone voice in the wilderness, an unwavering believer, staunch supporter and occasional provider of tough love. It was Bird who, before anyone else even viewed Stephenson as a lock to make the league, called him the best player on the Pacers’ roster.
And now Stephenson has joined Bird – and three of his Pacers teammates – in the NBA triple-double club.
Stephenson had 13 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds Monday night as the Pacers pushed the best start in franchise history to 8-0 with a 95-79 dismantling of the Memphis Grizzlies at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It was the team’s fifth victory in seven nights, three of those coming over teams projected to be among the top contenders in their respective conferences – the Bulls, Nets and Grizzlies.
“Everybody is together. It just feels great this year,” said Stephenson. “Everybody’s playing as a unit and everybody is playing smart together. I think I’m more aggressive. I’m getting everybody involved and I’m making shots.”
Therein lies the biggest key. After the 2011-12 season, coach Frank Vogel challenged Stephenson to become a respectable 3-point shooter. Considering the young guard was 4-for-35 in his first two seasons, that was a daunting hurdle. But it was more than a developmental goal, it was a test to see if Stephenson would commit himself to the task or if he would fall back into his old habits.
“It was a point of emphasis two years ago when he was out of the rotation,” Vogel said. “I talked to him and said, ‘If you ever develop your 3-point shot, it’s going to be impossible for me to keep you out of the lineup with all the other stuff you do out there.’ ”
Stephenson went to work and shot a respectable 33 percent last season. After making 3-of-5 Monday night, he is 18-for-35 (.514) this year.As for all the other stuff, well, it hasn’t exactly been forgotten. Stephenson leads the Pacers in assists (5.8) and is contributing 5.9 rebounds per game while serving as the team’s No. 2 scorer (14.3).
“He’s growing,” said David West. “Still have to reel him in sometimes, still has a way to go in terms of his maturity, but everything he’s doing now he’s helping and contributing to this group. He’s growing, he’s taking on some responsibility in terms of knowing we’re depending on him every single night to perform and play well and bring it at a certain intensity level at the defensive end.”
West is one of four Pacers starters with triple-doubles since the start of the 2012-13 season, along with Paul George (two) and Roy Hibbert. George Hill thought he had one last December when the final box showed 15 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds against Philadelphia, but an NBA statistical review of the game took away one of his assists.
Still, it is a certification of the talent and versatility of this lineup; how many other NBA teams can claim four starters with triple-doubles? Or, for that matter, a team president with 59?
Ironically, Stephenson has bloomed as a playmaker since the team stopped trying to develop him as a point guard. Since being shifted strictly to shooting guard last year, Stephenson has played much more confidently, much more fluidly, much more instinctively.
“It’s always been his most natural gift, passing the basketball,” Vogel said. “Forget his body — he’s got incredible athleticism and strength — what’s made Lance Stephenson unique is his basketball IQ, his instincts and his ability to share the basketball.
“He’s not just a guy that can go out and do nine crossovers and hit a step-back jumper. He’s got a unique ability to see the next play like some of the great passers in this game. So it’s no surprise to see what he’s doing with his assist totals.”
As for everything else? Well, to be honest, yes, it is a surprise. He still slips on occasion – including a taunting technical Monday for a one-handed ball-fake to the face of defender Tony Allen – but those moments are dwindling.
“I always knew he was going to be a star, what are you talking about? Never had any doubts at all,” Vogel said with a laugh. “I believed in his ability, believed in his instincts. He had to prove, and he still has to prove, whether he can handle success, whether he can play within himself on the offensive end, whether he can become a consistent jump-shooter, whether he can learn defensive discipline.
“There were a lot of unanswered questions with all that stuff, his professionalism, his approach, his work ethic. And thus far, he’s putting it all together. He’s still got a long way to go just like our team does.”
But, just for the moment, take a step back and appreciate not only how far they’ve come, but where it appears they are headed.