Mar 24, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (6) during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center. The Pacers defeated the Bucks 125-104. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
42 GP 10.5 MP .376 FG% .133 3P% .471 FT% 1.3 TRB 1.1 AST 0.5 STL 0.9 TO 2.5 PPG
Lance Stephenson#6 / Guard / Indiana Pacers
Unlike last season, when the two coaching tenures provided extended opportunities for everyone on the roster to shine (level of shine may vary), there were considerably less opportunities for the end of the bench to play significant roles this year thanks to the team's success, stability, and good fortunes with health. Pacers fans still have no idea what to expect from Jeff Pendergraph, just that he can dunk the ball, much less Krylyo Fesenko, who is, for lack of eloquence, really, really big.
Fans did know what to expect of Jeff Foster and A.J. Price, however. Foster had to step away from the game due to his back, announcing his retirement. His absence created a hole that was never truly filled by a team that didn't have a player taller than 6'9" to fill in for Roy Hibbert. Price, meanwhile, continued to play inconsistently in his two extended stretches. At times, the Pacers needed more out of Price from a point guard and scoring guard capacity, but despite his future with the team being up in the air, he's been a largely stable player for the blue and gold.
So why give Lance Stephenson, who got comparable amount of time as Price, but still hasn't shown much of anything at the pro level, a deeper look? Because next season will either be the beginning of Stephenson's extended tenure with the Pacers or a project that didn't quite pan out as hoped. Larry Bird remains high on Stephenson's game, and the times when it actually came through, it was easy to see why.
While Stephenson was boom or bust on the floor, he showed tremendous growth in maturity this year. Lance was involved in a number of off the court issues when he arrived in Indianapolis, with them cropping up from time to time in his rookie season, but he really appears to have turned a corner as a human being, with his biggest transgression being his choke gesture against LeBron James and the Heat; little more than ESPN fodder.
On the court, Stephenson was a focus in the rotation early in the season, but he had a fair share of struggles shooting, missing 14 of his first 15 shots. The focus on Lance as a ball handler and point guard was a mixed bag in the opening games as well with five assists to his six turnovers. But Stephenson put it all together against Atlanta, scoring 12 points on 5-7 shooting, adding in five boards and three assists to give a glimpse into Lance's potential.
Stephenson and his golden shoes experienced considerable ups and downs on the court throughout the year, occasionally flashing brilliance, mostly just looking like the raw project he was. Lance got less time as the season progressed, transitioning from a contributor (however you want to use the word) to the team's biggest cheerleader.
With the third seed clinched, Stephenson got his first NBA start against the Chicago Bulls in the season's finale, pouring in 22 points on 10-15 shooting in a true "where did that come from?" performance. At the very least, despite Lance's struggles through most of the season to even put together one decent game, his show against the Bulls was enough to warrant a second glance to Stephenson critics who may have asked for his roster spot this summer.
Aside from his two showcase nights and occasionally decent play, Lance's biggest growth came from his maturity. It was great to focus in on Lance Stephenson the basketball player for a full year and not focus on Lance Stephenson the headcase. No doubt his teammates played a big role, as did a coach like Brian Shaw to tell him to not be a "jackass." Whether anything can be taken from the Chicago game remains to be seen, but Lance's good will has given him a more stable place within the Pacers organization.
There just wasn't enough of Stephenson's play in the 2011-12 season to make him seem like he's getting close to putting it together as an NBA player, much less a big contributor on a team looking towards contention in the East. Lance has a lot of the best raw skills on the team, but can he even be the point guard/ball handler the team believes he can be? This summer will be a make-or-break one for Born Ready, and judging on his overall level of play, he still has a long way to go.
And the Future
Of course, it all comes back to this summer for Lance. Stephenson will almost certainly be a member of the Pacers next season, especially if Larry Bird returns for another year, but what kind of impact he has will be entirely predicated on his work this summer. He certainly has the tools to be a good NBA player, he just needs to put them together. He and Paul George will each be expected to make big jumps, but for Lance, the increments of improvement will be weighed far differently. If Stephenson can simply prove himself a competent role player this next season, he won't be ushered out of the door or met with as much concern as George not making meteoric leaps.