We watch him fly upcourt like a locomotive at full chug, see him throw a no-look pass to a teammate we didn’t even realize was there, drop our jaws as he puts one of those through-the-legs crossover dribble moves that buckles the knees of even the staunchest defender, and our first thought is:
Are the Pacers going to be able to keep him next year?
In three short years, Stephenson has gone from the guy nobody wanted (except Larry Bird) to the guy everybody is afraid to lose.
It’s understandable. As a fan base, we’ve become accustomed to the wait-till-next-year mindset because there have been so many forgettable this-years.
It’s also worrisome, and we are worriers by nature. Already there is buzz that he has played himself into an $8-9 million per year contract. And the fact of that matter is: at least. If George Hill is an $8 million player, how much should Stephenson be worth?
Given the Pacers’ financial constraints next year, when Paul George’s extension kicks in and the payroll already exceeds the projected salary cap, it will be an issue.
But it isn’t now.
For one of the rare moments in franchise history, it is all about now, today, this week, this season. All those previous wait-till-next-year moves have been pointing toward this one.
And Stephenson’s rapid ascent is giving even more buoyancy to the championship dream.
“He just continues to grow,” said Frank Vogel. “We were all amazed at the steps he took to become the player he became last year and it’s been an even greater step this year. If the season were to end today I think he would be hands-down the most improved player. I think that’s what everybody has to look at with him: he’s come a long, long way to become one of our best players.”Stephenson leads the league in triple-doubles (three) and has gotten to the point where it seems possible almost every night. It was kind of surprising, in fact, he fell short of his fourth against the Nets Saturday night when he had to, um, settle for 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
In seven games heading into the Pacers’ New Year’s Eve afternoon date with Cleveland, his numbers are borderline astonishing: 19.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists, .547 shooting overall, .423 from the 3-point line.
“It’s more just him making plays,” said David West. “He’s getting guys shots and obviously he’s a great rebounder at that two-guard position, he’s got great, great strength. His ability to be a one-man fast break opens up opportunities not just for him but for the other guys.
“I’ve been saying all year his instincts are some of the best in the league in terms of things you just can’t teach; you can’t teach what he sees. If you don’t have it, you’re not going to get it.”
Because it is becoming a more common occurrence, Stephenson also is learning to handle it without turning the game into a sideshow. He started to get caught up in the stat chase in the Brooklyn game, turning to the scorer’s table after setting up a teammate in the second half and repeating “that’s an assist” at least three times.
To his credit, however, he stayed within the flow of the game and, even though he didn’t produce a triple-double, his final line was impressive enough – and the Pacers won the game.
“I just try to bring something every night,” Stephenson said. “If it’s rebounds or assists, points, defense, I just try to bring something every night and be consistent at it.”
I don’t know where Stephenson will be this time next year. He has said repeatedly he wants to stay here and the front office obviously will do whatever it can short of busting the luxury tax threshold to keep him.
But for now, let’s just try to live in the moment, because it is pretty remarkable in and of itself.