by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness
September 30, 2013
As Paul George walked out of the elevator and towards his stage in the entry pavilion of Bankers Life Fieldhouse last week, after just putting his signature on a long-term deal to remain with the Pacers, there was Lance Stephenson proudly standing off to the side and looking on.
George was having his moment, talking about his first big contract that’ll start next summer once his rookie deal expires. The All-Star and last year’s Most Improved Player was being rewarded for his performance. Taken 30 picks later than George (No. 10) by Larry Bird and the Pacers in the 2010 draft, Stephenson is looking forward to having his own time (and larger paychecks).
Knowing Stephenson so well and as one of his biggest fans, Bird spoke directly at Stephenson shortly into George’s news conference.
“I see Lance standing back there,” he said into the microphone. “Next year, Lance, this will be your turn. You’ll be right up here by your daddy and everything will be fine.”
Stephenson had obviously heard that message before, but Bird saying it in front of the hundreds gathered and thousands more online must’ve felt even better for the 23-year-old. He said that he’s made his desires clear to Bird, whom he greatly respects and looks up to.
“I would love to stay here in Indiana,” Stephenson said. “No (doubt) about that.
“It was a blessing and I'm happy he said that, but I still have got to work hard. Nothing's guaranteed. I'm going to keep working hard, [to] get ready for the season.”
Last week wasn’t the first time Stephenson attended a teammates’ press conference announcing a new contract. He was seated in the first row for Roy Hibbert and George Hill’s big day last summer.
“I try to make it to everybody's [announcement],” he said. “Togetherness. I like to see when somebody achieves their goal and works hard so I'm there every time.”
Stephenson has matured on so many levels since being drafted as a 19-year-old after just one season with the Cincinnati Bearcats. He was a guy that wouldn’t do even the simplest things, like put his dirty clothes in the laundry cart in the middle of the room. He’d leave it underneath his chair or around his locker. With structure from the team, guidance from Bird and just the right players to teach him how to be a professional, Stephenson has evolved and his play has elevated as well.
In a greater role with the team last season, Stephenson averaged 8.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He started all but six games, helping to fill the void left by an injured Danny Granger.
The team is raving about how Granger has played in camp so far and those two have been asked ad nauseum whether they’d each liked to start or how they’d feel about coming off the bench.
“Either way we're strong,” Stephenson said, taking a mature stance. “It's bigger than me and Danny.”
Long term, Stephenson wants to stay and Bird wants his guy here, but finances most commonly disrupt plans.
“Well, the books are never right for us because we’re always under the tax,” Bird said when I asked if he’s confident in the team’s ability to re-sign the guard. “It’s hard to compete with teams. But we’re going to do whatever we can to keep the young man. He’s worked as hard as anybody has ever worked here and you’ll see it on the court because he’s had a great summer.
“Our goal right now is to keep everybody we have. We think we have got a strong team. When the time comes when we have to do something, we’ll do it.”
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