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Player Review: Lance Stephenson

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

June 25, 2013, 11:10 AM

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Age: 22
Years Pro: 3
Status: Has one year remaining on a contract that will pay $981,349 next season.
Key Stats: Averaged 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 29.2 minutes per game during the regular season. Improved to 9.4 points and 7.6 rebounds during the playoffs, but shooting percentages dropped.

If Danny Granger's injury opened a door for Paul George to step through last season, it tore down a wall for Lance Stephenson to burst through. Where would the third-year player have been if Granger had remained healthy? Playing off the bench, obviously. How much would he have improved? Not nearly as much as he did as a starter.

Stephenson gave no warning of the breakthrough that was to come in preseason play. He had shown hints of improvement by earning first-team summer league honors in Orlando (as did Miles Plumlee) but did nothing to build on that in the exhibitions. It was assumed Granger would be returning then, and in fact Granger played in the final two games. Stephenson scored just 25 points in seven games, hitting 10-of-41 shots. He only got to the foul line for four attempts, all in one game, so he wasn't getting to the basket. But he hit just 1-of-11 3-pointers, so he wasn't a perimeter threat, either.

Safe to say, nobody at that point was thinking he was going to be starting playoff games in June.

With Granger a last-minute scratch before the regular season began, Gerald Green and Sam Young got starting opportunities until Stephenson scored nine points while hitting 4-of-5 shots and had three assists with just one turnover off the bench against Minnesota. He started the next game against Washington, the seventh of the season, and delivered 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting while playing aggressive defense. Strangely enough, at that point the same player who had hit just 4-of-35 3-pointers in his previous two seasons and 1-of-11 in seven preseason games had hit 8-of-17 in seven regular season games.

He started from there on.

Stephenson wound up averaging 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 29.2 minutes per game. He hit 46 percent of his field goal attempts and 33 percent of his 3-pointers. The best thing about his season was that he got better in the playoffs, averaging 9.4 points and 7.6 rebounds, although his shooting percentages dropped in all categories.

His youth was betrayed by his inconsistency, but he had moments that inspired and intrigued during the playoffs. He had 10 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in Game 2 against Atlanta. He had two double-doubles against the Knicks, including a 25-point, 10-rebound performance in the Game 6 closeout. And, he had 20 points in the Game 4 victory over Miami.

Between the highlights, there were moments, particularly on the road, in which he clearly wasn't ready for the challenge. They would have been damning for most players, but less so for a 22-year-old. Still, the end result of his season was far superior to what anyone could have predicted, and bodes well for his future. If he can continue to improve his shot and judgment, two things that usually come naturally with time, he can grow into a legitimate starting guard on a contending team.

That might not be in his immediate future, however. If Danny Granger returns healthy, Granger expects to return to the starting lineup. Stephenson said following the Game 7 loss in Miami that he has no problem returning to the bench and playing a sixth man role. Paul George has already declared him a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year next season. It could even work out that Stephenson plays as many minutes off the bench as he did as a starter last season, and is able to play multiple positions.

“I'm ready for any challenge,” Stephenson said at season's end. “If Danny comes back, that's great for us. We'll be a better team. No one can stop us with me coming off the bench as a sixth man.”

Stephenson's role will work itself out over time. Regardless, his potential for continued improvement – for years to come – offers one of the primary reasons for optimism within the organization. He can't help but get better if he continues to work, and he'll no longer need a break from an injury to get his opportunity.

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