Lance Stephenson stayed on court warming up longer than usual on Monday night at Barclays Center. Where most players come out and shoot for about twenty minutes, the Coney Island, Brooklyn, native spent a good forty-five minutes working on all aspects of his game; from three-pointers, to hook shots in the paint, Stephenson had it all covered.
Who knew he worked so hard to improve his game?
Actually, Stephenson was outside warming up longer than most guys get to play in an actual game. Maybe it was the forty members of his family and friends that were watching him from the stands, or perhaps he was just glad to be home. Either way, he put on for Brooklyn.
His play on the hardwood wasn’t always as dependable as it is now. If you were to sum up Stephenson’s season in one word it would be: control. It’s clear that the guy that the Pacers picked with the 40th pick in the second round of the 2010 draft has taken to coach Frank Vogel’s teachings – and is playing a major part in the team’s current success.
Stephenson bullied the Nets on Monday, finishing the game with a career-high 26 points (10-of-16 from the field), seven rebounds, and five assists.
“He’s just grown,” stated Vogel about Stephenson’s improvement. “I mean, I think he started doing this towards the end of last year. Last year was the first time he really got an opportunity, and once he got the opportunity he showed what he can do.
“He’s just taken that to a whole new level this year. He’s hands down the most improved player in the league so far.”
Gone is the unpredictable player who often played with reckless abandon, the one that was demoted in 2011 by the Pacers organization for immaturity issues. In his place, a guy who understands and buys in to the ‘team’ concept, one who tailors his style of play to suit the particular ebbs-and-flows of an NBA game. Stephenson knows when the time is right for him to score, or when to get his teammates going. In essence he has changed his style of game to play Pacers basketball, rather than the flashy, but sometimes erratic New York playground style.
2013-14 has been his most consistent campaign thus far – that’s something that the player attributes to playing in a stable system in Indiana, along with the faith the coaching staff has shown him.
“Just being confident,” said Stephenson. “Knowing the coach is on my side, I can play through mistakes. Just making smart plays, and getting my teammates involved. Every shot I think is going in. That’s how confident I am right now.”
If anyone knows what the fish bowl world of playing basketball in New York feels like, it’s Stephenson. The high-school phenom ended his career at Lincoln High as the school’s all-time leading scorer, and was on national magazine covers as a teen. He admits that playing in Indianapolis means that he was allowed to develop at his own pace.
“I felt that when I came to Indy I had a lot of good vets that put me in my place and let me learn the game,” he says. [They] showed me the game, the right things to do and how to watch film – how to prepare for games and prepare for shoot-around. Learning each day got me to the point I’m at now.”
Prior to his breakout this season, Stephenson’s NBA career was probably best known for his infamous choke sign to LeBron James in the playoffs. He hasn’t always endeared himself to his colleagues around the league. Current teammate, and former Knick Chris Copeland, admitted that he wasn’t a fan, until he came to Indiana and saw the strides Stephenson had made for himself.
“I told him [Stephenson] already,” said Copeland. “I wasn’t a fan last year. I told him. From the summer, once I started playing with him – Lance likes to say ‘if you’re not my teammate, you’re not gonna’ like me’ – [but] being a part and watching him grow during the season, he takes criticism well from his teammates and the coaching staff.
“He’s a lot of fun to watch, and I saw that from early in the summer time. I don’t want to put too much pressure on the situation, but I think the sky’s the limit [for Stephenson].There’s very little he can’t do on the basketball court.”
When the Pacers drafted Stephenson it was because Larry Bird saw something special in the 6-foot-5 guard. Now with Paul George’s emergence, coupled with Stephenson’s maturation, it seems the franchise is primed to make a deep playoff push on an annual basis. Who knows, if the growth continues at this rapid rate, then Stephenson’s ceiling as a player could lead his team to the ultimate prize.
“It’s pretty high,” said Vogel with a sly smile about Stephenson’s ceiling. “I don’t know how to define it other than, whatever happens he’s got to continue to play within [the system] and he’s gotta’ continue to grow his defensive discipline.”
Stephenson is a free agent at season’s end, at this rate he’ll be in line to receive a massive increase on the barely-million dollar deal he’s currently on.
Image via: AP Photo/Seth Wenig