The Future Can Wait, Stephenson Giving the Pacers a Great Present

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 3, 2013 | 12:15 a.m.

The only problem with Lance Stephenson playing like this is that it makes people worry about his future – his future with the Pacers, beyond this season. If he keeps running, scoring, shooting, driving, passing, defending and, yes, experimenting like he's been doing, how can the Pacers fit him into their already-crowded salary structure next season?

Through three games, Stephenson is averaging 19 points while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and 64 percent from the three-point line, has just five turnovers, and has defended aggressively. Those kind of players tend to get paid in the NBA, and Stephenson will.

For him to stay with the Pacers, it seems Stephenson's self-proclaimed “daddy,” Larry Bird, will have to sacrifice someone or something to bring back his prized draft pick of 2010. But it also seems both parties are willing to make compromises. Their marriage is too fresh and too adoring for it not to continue beyond four years.

“I don't think about that,” Stephenson said after matching his regular season career high with 22 points while hitting a career-high five three-pointers in seven attempts. “It's a long season, I'm not thinking nothing about contracts. I'm going to stay with the Pacers, so I'm not even thinking about the contract.”

Going to stay? Does that mean he would turn down a larger offer to re-sign?

“I'm staying with the Pacers,” he said.

The details of that will be worked out eight months from now, when Stephenson becomes a free agent. Until then, the prospect of what the Pacers can become if he continues playing as he did in Saturday's 89-74 win over Cleveland is scary-good. The roster already includes four players who have been selected to All-Star games, all of whom are still approaching or not far past their prime if Danny Granger can return healthy. Add another All-Star caliber player to that mix, and what happens? That could be the season's X-factor, the element that pushes them beyond Game 7 of the conference finals.

The Pacers have a proud history of New York players who emerged from playground asphalt to make a major impact, such as Roger Brown, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Ron Artest and Jamaal Tinsley. Now comes Stephenson, the 23-year-old Brooklyn native who has grown from a risky second-round draft pick with a questionable attitude, one who averaged less than three points over his first two seasons, to a major contributor who appears to be in the mere infant stages of unveiling his potential.

The best thing about Stephenson's performance against the Cavs is that it didn't seem like an unexpected explosion. It wasn't an outlier, like his 25-point effort in the second round series-ending Game 6 against the Knicks last season. It was just another good game, his third in three outings this season. He ran the floor, playing within the confines of the offense (usually) and hit shots.

His 3-point shooting is the only part of his game that lifts eyebrows. After hitting just 4-of-35 attempts his first two seasons and 33 percent last season, he's now 9-of-14. He won't continue that pace, but if he can keep his average about 40 percent, he adds a much-needed element to the Pacers' offense. With Paul George and George Hill already posing serious threats from beyond the arc and David West and Roy Hibbert working the foul lane, what are defenses to do?

At Bird's suggestion, Stephenson worked with a famed shooting coach, Hal Wissel, over the summer. They met once in New York and again in Indianapolis. Whatever they did, it seems to have worked. Stephenson rarely seems to shoot well in post-practice or pre-game shooting, and only hit 2-of-12 attempts in the preseason. When the games count, however, his focus and form improve. Saturday, for example.

“He puts the time in,” Paul George said. “He really made the commitment to step up. When we closed the season down last year in Miami, I gave a speech for everybody to come back better. He's one guy who picked it up.”

The next step for Stephenson will be to curb his enthusiasm once in awhile, although that counts as quibbling for now because, as coach Frank Vogel said, “It's in his DNA to be aggressive.”

Midway through the second quarter of Saturday's game, Cavs guard Dion Waiters was called for a technical foul. Stephenson wasn't the Pacers' best foul shooter on the court at the time – in fact, he was the worst (.571 now) – but he had hit his second three-pointer of the game a minute earlier and was pumped. He headed for the foul line to shoot the technical free throw. Vogel let him go. He missed it, but the thought counted for something. Then in the fourth quarter, when the Pacers were running away with the game, he hit a driving, hanging, left-handed layup, followed shortly by a squared-up, eyeball-to-eyeball 3-pointer over his defender to beat the shot clock to push the lead to 79-61.

He then grabbed a weakside rebound in traffic on the defensive end. With momentum building, the crowd roaring and his heart racing, he rushed the ball upcourt and attempted a one-handed pass off the dribble that was deflected out of bounds. After the inbounds pass, and after West missed a shot, he dribbled back and forth from his left hand to his right, back and forth, attempting to cross up his defender. But he missed a 19-footer.

It didn't matter at that point. But in a close game, it could.

“He just gets into his comfort zone,” George said, laughing. “That's Lance. You can't take away where he's from. He's a New York player. They play with that confidence. I'm a fan of it. I like when he gets into that mode.”

Said West: “You can't over-react to a play, just move on to the next play. But as long as he does positive things we understand there's going to be some growing.”

The other question looming over Stephenson is what happens if and when Granger returns. Vogel had planned for Granger to start in place of Stephenson if Granger recaptured his level of play prior to his knee issues of last season. Should Granger - who is out with a strained calf muscle - return to that level, would it really make sense to take Stephenson out of the starting lineup?

He reiterated his stance following Saturday's game.

“Either way,” he said. “If I come off the bench, it doesn't matter. When we all play together we play great, so it doesn't matter if I start or come off the bench.”

He'll play starter's minutes regardless. And if he keeps playing them like he's been playing them, he'll present a wonderful dilemma for Bird.

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