Pacers guard Rodney Stuckey finds comfort zone

After early career struggles in Detroit, veteran relishes with role in Indiana

Rodney Stuckey has seen and heard some of the stuff coming out of Los Angeles, where 19-year-old Brandon Ingram already has been moved by management into Kobe Bryant’s vacated lockers at Staples Center and at the team’s practice facility. The metaphorical implications are rather blunt.

Stuckey knows about other situations of grandiose expectations in this league, too, where tomorrow was hurried up in desperation to make it “today,” and how that was just asking for trouble. Our culture is rife with warnings against such impatience: Haste makes waste. No wine before its time. And John Wooden’s unforgettable and wise, “Be quick but don’t hurry.”

Any number of NBA prospects have suffered from being rushed and pushed into being something they weren’t, failing to live up to expectations that were out of whack in the first place. A serviceable big man such as Joe Smith played for 16 seasons and ranks among the top 50 offensive-rebounders in league history, but he might not have bounced through 12 different organizations if he hadn’t been toting all that it supposedly meant, good and bad, to be the No. 1 pick in 1995.

The same applies to Stuckey, who had the expectations bar set unreachably high a few games into his second NBA season and – regardless of the player he actually was – fell short of them for the next six or seven years both in Detroit and in Indiana.

Now, in what will be his 10th season, Stuckey seems to have found both his niche and the opportunity to shine in it. He’s a veteran who has accepted his sixth-man role with the Pacers and sees room to roam with it in the faster-paced offense mandated by basketball boss Larry Bird and installed by coach Nate McMillan.

He has been one of the steadier players through three preseason games for a team breaking in not just new systems under a new coach but a bunch of new players (Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson among them). Stuckey has averaged 11 points in 18.7 minutes with 13 assists and five turnovers, with 20 points in one of two games against Chicago last week.

“My role is coming off the bench, man,” Stuckey said over the weekend. “My role is coming off the bench and to be aggressive. Nate wants all of us in attack mode. Attack the basket, look for your shot, when you’re open shoot it with no hesitation. That’s pretty much the green light.”

Stuckey has started 302 of his 612 NBA games, most in a span of five Detroit seasons that supposed to be promising for him but wound up unfulfilling. He never has been one to seek the spotlight, but for most of his Pistons stay, it burned hotter than it does now.

At the ripe age of 30, he seems open and at ease, happy with his fit, eager to see where he and the Pacers can take this reset.

“I’m 10 years in the league now,” Stuckey told NBA.com. “So I pretty much know the ups and downs off the court. Just being a vet now in this league, it’s huge. I think the game’s kind of slowed down for me a lot. Mentally. I just know what to expect now and how the game needs to be played.”

He had been called on to know that and play accordingly too soon, back when he was about 18 months removed from Eastern Washington U. as the No. 15 pick in 2007. Detroit was deep into a proud history by the fall of 2008 – six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals, with two Finals appearances and a title in 2004 – and seeking ways to keep it all afloat.

The team’s draft gamble in 2003 on Darko Milicic had failed, so Jason Maxiell (the Pistons’ first-rounder in 2005) and, in particular, Stuckey were pushed to center stage too soon. That it was the team’s highly respected GM, Joe Dumars, doing the pushing only lent credibility to the idea that Stuckey could step in swiftly for an aging Chauncey Billups as Detroit’s primary offense-initiator.

Billups still had two All-Star appearances in him when Dumars traded him to Denver for a fading Allen Iverson. Stuckey’s opportunities and exposure soared – he averaged 34.2 minutes and got up 15.2 shots per game in 2009-10, though hitting only 40.5 percent – but neither he nor the Pistons (27-55) shined.

And so it went, Stuckey never quite reaching the expectations put on him too soon or unfairly or simply mistakenly. When he left Detroit in 2014, he did so for a modest, one-year contract with Indiana, a far cry from how he’d been positioned.

An analysis of his career back in September 2014 on detroitbadboys.com put it this way: “Thanks to retrospect, it’s clear that he was an average player who just got far more attention than he should have. It’s easy to visualize an alternative career path that would have ultimately led to a quite satisfactory Pistons career.”

Indiana had its own issues. Six weeks after Stuckey signed there, young Pacers star Paul George suffered his ghastly leg fracture in a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas. Notions of breaking through in the East after two straight trips to the conference finals were dashed in that instant.

The 2014-15 Pacers finished 38-44. Last season, with key pieces such as David West and Roy Hibbert gone, they improved to 45-37 and pushed Toronto to seven games in the first round. But Bird’s eagerness to play faster sent head coach Frank Vogel packing, setting up Stuckey to play for his sixth head coach in 10 seasons.

“I’m 10 years in the league now. So I pretty much know the ups and downs off the court. Just being a vet now in this league, it’s huge. I think the game’s kind of slowed down for me a lot. Mentally.” — Rodney Stuckey on his evolution

Stuckey is upbeat these days, and claims not to see any parallels with guys like Ingram, players of whom too much might be expected too soon.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “To be honest with you, I think a lot of things weren’t expected of me very quickly. There was just a mistake that was made that when Chauncey was traded away. Chauncey was like the backbone of our team. He was our engine. Once he left, there was no captain of the ship.”

Except that maybe he, Stuckey, was supposed to be that guy?

“I don’t think so,” the 6-foot-5 guard said. “I was never told, ‘We’re getting rid of Chauncey because we want you to be the guy.’ I was never told that. … It was a tough situation. We all felt it and we were all hurt by it.”

The Pacers face expectations, too, but not nearly as lofty as those Pistons of eight years ago. Not nearly as unrealistic either, in a conference all but conceded to Cleveland. High seeds remain available to the likes of Toronto, Boston, Atlanta, Washington, Detroit and Indiana. With the added firepower around George now, along with second-year big man Myles Turner’s anticipated development (not quite “too much, too soon”), Stuckey is comfortable with his team, its ambitions and his place in it all.

“As a team man, we all get together,” he said. “We’re like a family, from the get-go. A lot of guys came in early this past summer. A lot of us were here like a month before, we were playing a lot of 5-on-5. We were already getting acclimated to each other.

“Any time that you have new faces, a new philosophy or anything, it’s always going to be a process. We have new players trying to learn our likes and dislikes, trying to learn a new offense.”

Stuckey has freedom now that way, at a point when he’s ready for it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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