Corey B. Elliot
ISR Senior Writer, Pacers Beat Writer
INDIANAPOLIS- Lance Stephenson was born in Brooklyn, NY and if you’ve ever watched him on the basketball court you’d quickly understand why many including him, call him “Born-Ready”. But the NBA isn’t Rucker Park—the famed Harlem street-ball-holy-grail—and despite being the state of New York’s all-time high school scoring leader, there was little that Stephenson was truly ready for when he was drafted in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft.
He grew up with raw talent on the basketball court that many had never seen the likes of, that was never in question for the fourth-year pro. The problem, at times, was growing up off the court. That remained a thorn in Stephenson’s side from high school through his rookie season.
When Stephenson was in high school the reports and rumors were out there. He was cut from the USA under-18 national team for “chemistry issues”, had an altercation with a teammate that resulted in a suspension and a sexual assault charge that some suggest interfered with his college recruitment ultimately forcing him to delay his announcement several times.
On paper Stephenson is the complete player. The former McDonald’s All-American played just one season at the University of Cincinnati before entering the NBA draft where in the second round he was selected 40th overall by the Indiana Pacers (8-0). It has been documented as much as it has been expressed by Pacers President Larry Bird himself that Lance was Larry’s pick. Although it took some time and patience, much to the tune of the way the Pacers have been built, Bird got it right, again.
But his rookie season, “immaturity issues” on the court and an alleged domestic dispute off the court looked as if Bird had gotten it wrong. It was challenging. The Pacers were coming out of an era that was marred by the brawl at the Palace at Auburn Hills and followed up by off-court altercations such as reoccurring DUI incidents, fighting at clubs and constant negative news that hung over the franchise like a dark, grey, stormy, rain cloud.
To Pacers fans that were loyal enough to stick with the team through the horrid five-straight years without a playoff berth, Lance was just the next player brought in that fit the recent stereotype of a-headache-waiting-to-happen. It’s almost safe to say that we might not be talking about the same type of individual if Stephenson had been a part of those years between 2005 and 2009.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but, rather where he stands at times of challenge and controversy-Martin Luther King Jr.
Stephenson has taken his stand; in fact it actually started last season. And this season, Stephenson has looked like a completely different player and he sounds like a completely different man. He is approachable, personable and looks at you in the eye during an interview with a level of honesty and integrity even a politician would envy.
While he started all of last season due to Danny Granger’s injury, he performed well enough to leave question as to whether or not he should be starting regardless of Granger’s status and on Monday night against the Memphis Grizzlies Stephenson left little question when he recorded his first career triple double scoring 13 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds.
There were hardly any words to explain just how much of a testament it was to his growth and progress. But head coach Frank Vogel has seen it with his own eyes and like a proud father, he had more than enough to say about just how far Lance has come.
“A long way; he came in after one year of college and had a lot to learn about professionalism, how to carry his self and how to work,” Vogel said of Stephenson’s path to success. “The culture here has allowed him to let his talent shine while growing into a true professional and a solid basketball player. It’s impressive.”
This season, Stephenson is averaging 14.3 points per game, 5.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. The assists aren’t a shocking statistic, though. There are many out there that suggest Stephenson would be a better one than a two guard. That’s a part of the complete package, though. The passing is what makes Stephenson much more dangerous than opponents realize and his energy, even during a horrid night shooting like he had against the Chicago Bulls last week, is what fuels this team in big moments.
“It’s his confidence. He definitely gives us an edge, he gives us swagger and in basketball winning is all about confidence,” Vogel said of Stephenson’s contributions. “Passing the basketball has always been his most natural gift. What has made Lance Stephenson unique is his basketball I.Q. and his instincts. He has 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.”
For Stephenson’s success to continue at this level, he must learn how to handle the success. It isn’t easy and many have failed, but Vogel is right, the culture of the franchise and the locker room is what has made this an easier road for Stephenson. But from a veteran’s point-of-view, Stephenson deserves a little bit of credit for coming into his own.
“Lance is his own man. He’s made the shift in terms of his mindset and we saw it coming last year. He knows he’s being counted on and we have pressure on him to perform,” David West said of Stephenson’s maturity. “He knows we’re going to hold him accountable just like we hold everyone else accountable. He bucked a little bit, but obviously he’s young. I’m proud of him. Every guy on this team wakes up every morning with his mind set on doing the right thing and that helps our culture.”
And if there was ever a doubt as to whether or not Stephenson knows those are the standards he is held to, he would be the first to reassure you. The basketball player that thrives on an opponent’s challenge and the opportunity to prove everyone wrong on the court is now succeeding at proving everyone wrong about the person he is off the court because the selflessness is eliminating every ounce of selfishness.
“It just feels great this year. I’m having a lot of fun and just playing hard,” Stephenson said. “I really calmed down the street ball and tried to get the street ball game out of me. I’m just trying to create for others and think of me second. It’s not all about you it’s about the team. I just think I’ve grown a lot during the time I’ve been here.”
What has grown more than anything else is the admiration of the Pacers fans. Many of whom had their doubts, are all now convinced the Pacers knocked the 2010 draft out of the park when they selected Paul George and Stephenson. And despite George’s success, Bird has long since said that Stephenson may be the best natural talent on the team. On George’s contract day this last fall, Bird looked up and said “You’re next, Lance” in regards to a healthy contract extension. The support from an NBA legend like Bird, in hindsight, will probably prove to be one of the largest reasons Stephenson has become one of the most exciting up and coming talents in the league.
“A legend like that to be in my corner and believe in my talent like he does gives me the confidence to go at people and create for my teammates so that everyone will believe in me the way he believes in me,” Stephenson said of Bird. “For him to say that (I’m next) it made me feel comfortable and have no worries. I just try to play ball and not think about it, I’ll let the future will speak for itself.”
Stephenson hasn’t hit his ceiling yet. I’m not sure if any of the young blossoming stars on this Pacers team truly have. Regardless, the future will indeed speak for itself and if the future includes George Hill, Roy Hibbert, George and Stephenson then the future is going to have a lot to say about the legacy of this Pacers team. Hopefully, it will be written on banners hanging high above in the rafters at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Because, Stephenson knows better than anyone by now; actions speak much louder than words.
Corey Elliot is a senior writer at ISR and the Pacers beat writer. You can follow Corey and the ISR on twitter.