Third year player Lance Stephenson had been little more than a role player when the 2012-2013 season began. Then, when news broke that Danny Granger was going to be sidelined with a knee injury, he was thrust into the starting lineup. Being asked to hold down the fort while Granger was recovering, Stephenson was forced to play a role with which he was unfamiliar. Pretty scary, when you consider the expectations surrounding the team this season.
In the NBA, all great role players have a niche. An area in which they specialize, that betters the team significantly. Whether that be three-point shooting, defense, forcing the tempo, passing, etc., all great role players are responsible for an area of the game. Stephenson has long been a role player without a niche. His first few seasons, he was thrust into games that were already decided. People always talked about his potential, but the Pacers never really had a need for him in games. They had everything under control.
Fast-forward to the closing weeks of the 2012-2013 season, and you're looking at an entirely different Lance Stephenson.
Pacers.com's Scott Agness wrote a great piece covering Stephenson's rise to prominence.
Incredibly apparent in the Pacers' loss to the Celtics last Thursday night, Lance has discovered his niche. Off the ball, Lance is an absolute menace. With five steals against the Celtics in that Thursday night loss, Lance was consistently getting his team the ball. Not only that, but Lance has become brilliant when it comes to forcing the tempo on offense following a steal. Especially on the fast break. Stephenson has shown brilliant decision-making regarding whether to take the ball to the rack, or pass it off when flying down the court at top speeds.
Agness eluded to this in his article:
His steals lead to decisions in the open court and often end in points, no matter who's putting points on the board. Best of all, it helps Stephenson get in a zone for all to see. He gets a determined, in-the-zone look to him. Maybe it takes him back to his youth in New York, where he reportedly used to just own the playground. With that 'Don't get in my way' look, Stephenson quickly advances the ball and runs as quickly as Gump.
Agness mentions that zone Stephenson seems to enter when on the break. My friends and I often joke about Lance, referencing him as a player you wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley. In all honestly, I've never met Stephenson, so I have no idea how he is as a person. However, I can assure you, I want nothing to do with him when he's in that zone bringing the ball down the floor.
That excerpt from Agness' Pacers.com piece also references Stephenson running "as quickly as gump". Somebody wrote "Gump" on a piece of tape and posted it on Lance's locker, referencing the fact that when he really gets going, Stephenson runs as fast as Forrest Gump. I love that. The team is embracing Lance's newfound role. The Pacers have found a place where Lance excels, and they can now build around that as they move closer to the playoffs.
The most exciting part, to me, is that Lance doesn't have to be starting to succeed where his strengths lay. Whether he's coming off the bench or in that starting lineup, Lance has the ability to impact the game significantly. So, whether Granger returns to the starting lineup or not, Lance will be effective. That is most certainly, something to be excited about.