Player Review 2012: Lance Stephenson

by Jeff Tzucker

Conrad Brunner Caught in the Web banner headline

Player Analysis: Lance Stephenson

by Conrad Brunner || Caught in the Web Archive ||

June 25, 2012

As you think about the NBA Draft on Thursday, maybe even get a little excited about some of the prospects, ponder this one:

Where would Lance Stephenson be selected had he stayed in college?

The 6-5 guard would be coming off his junior season. Considering he averaged 12.3 points as a freshman, it's reasonable to conclude he would be at least a lottery-level talent.

This is why it is often wise to invest a second-round pick in a raw player whose productivity has not yet matched up to his potential, as Larry Bird did with the 40th pick in 2010. With two seasons of NBA schooling behind him, Stephenson now stands poised to make the jump into a full-time slot in the rotation—if he continues to progress in the summer.

In other words, Born Ready is almost ready.

"He's got to continue to play within himself and channel his imagination with his passing," Coach Frank Vogel said. "His imagination is extraordinary but it gets him in trouble sometimes.

"The more solid he can play, whether it's pick-up ball in the summertime or next year, he's got to get into the habit of making the right basketball plays and not the spectacular basketball plays."

After appearing in just 12 games as a rookie, Stephenson played in nearly two-thirds of the games in 2011-12. In 42 games, he averaged 10.5 minutes, 2.5 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists.

He was a fixture in the first half of the season playing in 32 of the first 35 games but with fell out of the picture, making just 10 appearances in the final 31.

But that final appearance left a lasting impression.

With the third seed clinched and Danny Granger and Leandro Barbosa given the night off to nurse injuries, Stephenson started for the first time and racked up 22 points on 10 of 15 shooting, playing 35 minutes without a turnover.

Against a Chicago team playing at relative full strength, battling for the top seed in the postseason, Stephenson scored 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter but the Pacers fell short, 92-87.

It was a performance made even more remarkable by the fact he shot 2 of 4 from the 3-point line, doubling his career output. Stephenson had been 2 of 31 in his first 53 games.

He has the ability to get inside the defense and create a shot or a play seemingly at will. As a passer, his vision and creativity is unmatched on the roster but his judgment needs refinement. Defensively, he has come a long way but has a ways to travel before achieving true soundness within the system.

The Pacers initially thought Stephenson's future was as a big point guard but it is now apparent he was built to play the other backcourt spot, where his size and skill set fit much more naturally. But how big a role he can carve next season depends heavily on his ability to improve his jump shot.

"He has to develop his 3-point shooting," Vogel said. "If he's going to play more at the two, then he's got to be able to space the floor. His 3-point shooting took a big leap this year, he did a lot of positive work with Brian Shaw, who was really raving at the end of the season about how far he had come.

"With his physicality and size and athleticism and his ability to make plays, if he comes back with a 3-point shot the way Paul George came back from year one to year two, I think it's going to be impossible not to have in the rotation and be a big part of what we're doing. If he develops that, look out."

George shot .298 from the arc as a rookie but jumped to .385 this past season. No one is expecting Stephenson to become Reggie Miller from long range, but he has to pose a threat because if opponents have to respect the 3-point shot it will give him that much more room to break down the defense off the dribble.

There's a reason Bird has stood staunchly, sometimes stubbornly, behind Stephenson. There's a reason Bird declared him the most talented player on the roster.

That reason should become obvious next season.

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