#6 / Guard (Rookie) / Indiana Pacers
While the draft classes of 2008 and 2009 focused heavily on established, NBA ready players, the Pacers’ 2010 class was drafted with an emphasis on high potential. Paul George seems to be on the right track following a solid rookie campaign, but Indiana’s biggest enigma in the "will he pan out?" sweepstakes is going to be the team’s second round pick, Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson entered the NBA Draft after one year at Cincinnati following the most decorated high school career in New York’s history, yet the pick was a fairly risky one, not for what Stephenson could contribute on the court, but rather the numerous issues off of the court issues he’d been swept up in over the years. With Indiana striving to erase their image from the mid-ought’s, the move was a bit perplexing, but his basketball potential remained undeniable.
Despite his somewhat raw potential and immaturity issues, Stephenson took well in his Summer League debut, leading the Pacers with 21 points in a win over Orlando. In fact, a positive Summer League showing took a roster with plenty of rotation questions, and added Stephenson to the mix. However, Lance removed himself from that discussion when he was arrested for third degree assault in August.
Not even two months since he’d been drafted, the negativities and bad press were coming to light about Stephenson. However, the Pacers, who had just signed him to a guaranteed deal, opted to stand behind their player as they awaited a verdict in his pending court case. Meanwhile, back in the basketball world, Stephenson prepared for training camp and preseason in hopes of showing his growth.
In this limited capacity, Stephenson showcased some positive play offensively, but had very little success with defensive matters, especially being billed, and playing as a point guard. He spent most of the preseason being constantly beaten by opposing point guards. In the end, his play and court date put him as the team’s 15th man, which was no surprise, but there would still be no timetable on his playing time.
As the season moved along, murmurs began to arise about whether Stephenson would ever play for the Pacers, and whether his time on the bench would be more valuable than a D-League stint with the Mad Ants. The Pacers believed him being with the team would be a better opportunity to monitor his growth on and off the floor, but even that didn’t keep him from getting caught up in some unsavory internet rumors.
Despite constantly being pushed back, Stephenson’s case was finally dropped in February, clearing him of his assault charges, a fact not lost on the organization, who kept a positive demeanor on the outcome of his trial from a very early point. Alongside a youth movement, positive team play, and a new head coach, Stephenson would finally suit up in an NBA game.
His growth from preseason to his debut was obvious when he didn’t back down from Steve Nash and the Suns, even getting a confetti celebration from his family upon scoring his first NBA points. It was all a huge weight off of Stephenson’s and his family’s shoulders to see him overcome everything and finally debut in the NBA.
He was given a larger role within the rotation immediately, and he played well, displaying his court vision and ball handling, while also playing far better defense than his previous play had suggested possible. Unfortunately, his growth in minutes led to some chemistry issues within the rotation, as Indiana slide into a six game losing streak that nearly destroyed the season.
Lance himself was among many of the topics in a heated locker room battle following a loss to Minnesota, and as a result, he was removed from the regular rotation. The team rebounded as Stephenson had his chance to grow in garbage minutes, but yet another off the court issue would force the team’s hand, shutting him down for the season and calling on the return of T.J. Ford in his third string role.
So how did Lance impress?
Much as was the case with Paul George, Stephenson’s growth from Summer League to his NBA debut was easily noticeable. Following a pretty dreadful preseason showing, Stephenson’s debut was marked with surprise and intrigue at the young player’s potential. While there will likely always be questions regarding his ability to run the point guard position, he made efforts to set himself as a facilitator at times, but remained more in the ball-dominant point guard mold of Tyreke Evans rather than a team facilitator.
He showed himself to be a gifted playmaker at times with outstanding court vision, often putting himself in good positions to draw fouls or find decent looks. There was very little of Lance to take in, but very little of that looked detrimental to a team looking to win games.
And how did he disappoint?
Aside from being a ball dominant point guard, which could have helped in a second unit bogged with poor offensive stretches, Stephenson still at times put himself in front of the best of the team. He had a fairly high number of field goal attempts for his minutes and role, but unfortunately, most of Lance’s shortcomings came from issues away from the court.
Over the course of the year, the high risk side of Stephenson came to light far more than the high reward side, finding himself in the news no less than three times over the course of the year, the final incident shutting him down. He also seemed to rub a lot of his teammates the wrong way on the court, as his promotion resulted in a season jarring six game losing streak which almost seemed to implode the team.
What’s next for Stephenson?
Following his removal from the active roster at the end of the year, his future with the team seemed in doubt, but Larry Bird went at lengths to address this issue in the team’s recap last week. In it, he mentioned that while Stephenson is very immature, there wasn’t enough aid from his teammates in that regard, an issue Bird says will not be an issue moving forward.
Bird still believes Stephenson’s tools can bring wins to the team, and from what little we saw, it seems that could be true. But much as was the case with Shawne Williams, Bird was clear to state that if anything should happen over the course of the summer, it’d be easy to reassess his place on the team. Maturity seems to be the one thing holding Lance back from being a good NBA player and it’s hard to say if he’ll ever find that while a member of the blue and gold. But many within the organization are still very high on Stephenson’s potential, and it would be only a positive to the team should he spend the summer growing up.