Player Review 2014: Lance Stephenson

by Mark Montieth Writer

Age: 23
Years Pro: 4
Status: Unrestricted free agent (as of midnight on June 30).
Key Stats: Averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists during the regular season in 35.3 minutes. Averaged 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists in the playoffs.  Led NBA with five triple-doubles. 

Where do you begin with Lance Stephenson's season?

The steady improvement of a player who will be 24 when next season opens? The versatility and aggressiveness that produced a league-leading five triple doubles? The energy that sometimes sparked a laid-back team? The 14 technical fouls? The Sir Lancealot video bid for an All-Star berth? The dancing and gyrating after big plays? Blowing in LeBron's ear?

Stephenson had one of the more memorable and controversial seasons a Pacer has ever had, which amounts to an intriguing prelude to his off-season given his status as an unrestricted free agent. His unique brew of talent and personality makes him the wild card of the NBA's deck of free agents, which makes it impossible to guess his value around the league.

Photo Gallery: Lance Stephenson Season-in-Review »

This much we know: Pacers president Larry Bird, who drafted Stephenson and helped nurture him, wants to re-sign him. And, Stephenson wants to come back. So, it likely would take an astronomical offer from another team to get him out of Wanamaker, where he lives with his parents and younger brother. Those playoff “controversies” ultimately could help keep the going rate down.

There are those in the media, and among the fan base, who believe the Pacers should let Stephenson walk. As if letting one of their best players, a young one at that, leave without compensation would somehow make them a better team and improve their odds of winning a championship.

Bird says he has no such plan.

“You just don't let a talent like that walk away, if you can help it.” he said in his postseason meeting with the media.”

Aside from his athleticism and improving talent, the case for keeping Stephenson can be made with his undeniable work ethic. As a young high school kid, he got up at 5 a.m. every school day and ran up and down 30 flights of stairs, through all 15 floors of the building in which he lived, stopping only to do 20 pushups at the top and bottom. He then went outside and ran. He did this with an older high school star, Sebastian Telfair, who went on to be drafted out of the same high school Stephenson attended.

Stephenson still works hard – “as hard as anyone we've had to come through here in the summer time,” Bird says. He also possesses the team's best competitive spirit, for better and for worse, as he showed in the season's final game, the Game 6 loss at Miami.

“He loves to play,” Bird said. “Lance can get himself in jams at times for other things he does. But once he matures as a person and his game matures more, his ceiling is unlimited.”

Stephenson created a dilemma for the Pacers with his improvement. He has the ability to create shots for himself, but by doing so tipped the balance of the offense away from Roy Hibbert, George Hill and David West. What should he do? Put a self-imposed ban on his skill set and stand on the perimeter?  He also led the team in assists (4.2), providing fuel for the argument that he can play point guard. Larry Bird believes he can.

Then again, does he have a point guard's personality? He brings a touch of Brooklyn with him to every practice, playing hard, talking trash and challenging teammates. That can be good, in proper doses, but it can cause problems within a locker room as well. The same goes for games. He injected energy, excited the fans, helped the Pacers to one of the best regular seasons in franchise history, but he also proved to be a distraction at times.

Stephenson has come a long way from his rookie season, when some teammates admit to not even liking him. It stands to reason his game and personality will continue to mature, which is why Bird appears ready to bring him back.