He has Lance Stephenson's former locker, and before long he'll have Lance Stephenson's former place in the starting lineup. The issue for the Pacers, though, is whether Rodney Stuckey can wind up with Lance Stephenson's former contributions, too.
Even with Roy Hibbert contributing 22 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots, Stuckey was the most intriguing and relevant storyline in the Pacers' 103-91 season-opening victory over Philadelphia on Wednesday. Playing off the bench and restricted to 16 minutes and 11 seconds because of a sore foot that had kept him out of most activities over the previous 10 days, he jump-started the win with 16 points, five assists and just one turnover.
He must have been a familiar sight to most of the fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. A muscular 6-5 guard taking the ball to the basket aggressively, dishing some assists, taking a charge. On the other hand, he did it quietly.
Whether Stuckey can do this kind of thing over the course of 82 games remains to be seen, but there's no logical reason to believe he can't. He did it frequently through seven seasons in Detroit, despite the ruckus of playing for six head coaches, and he's eager to do even more with the Pacers, who offer a fresh start and refreshing stability.
So, could it be that those who consider the summertime loss of Stephenson in free agency a major blow only know half the story? Could it be that Stuckey will turn out to be just as good, only with a little more of this and a little less of that? He offered plenty of first-hand evidence against the 76ers, statistically and otherwise. (For those seeking immediate comparison, Stephenson opened his career in Charlotte on Wednesday with seven points on 3-of-12 field goals, 13 rebounds and eight assists, in 40 minutes.)
Be clear about this: nobody in the Pacers locker room has been heard to whisper a complaint about Stephenson, on the record or otherwise. But nobody has been heard to complain about the switch, either. Stephenson was liked, the way you like the kid who acts up in class now and then and keeps things interesting. Stuckey is liked, the way you like the quiet kid who does his work and doesn't seek attention.
Donald Sloan – who would have had a triple-double on Wednesday if his teammates had shot a little better, but settled for 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists – summed it up fairly.
“Lance is a different guy,” he said, allowing himself a slight chuckle. “They have two different games, but Stuckey definitely brings that hard-nosed playmaking ability, like Lance did.
“Lance has a different style,” he added. “It will kind of be the same, but the way Lance did it will be different.”
In other words, Stephenson gets more style points. But the substance is similar. In still other words, Stephenson's absence won't leave a crater-sized gap in the starting lineup.
“No, Stuck does it just as good,” Sloan said. “(Stephenson supporters) are looking for that flash, that swag, that sauce, that little different flavor to the move. Stuckey's right to it. He's like, 'I'm going to get here and then I'm going to shoot it.' Lance would dance a little bit with it, spin, come back and then shoot it. They're kind of doing the same thing, but Lance is putting a little different spin on it.”
Stuckey's impact on Wednesday's game was immediate, and necessary. The Pacers had started horribly, committing eight turnovers in the first nine minutes, 16 seconds, and trailing by 10 points with 2:45 left in the first quarter. Stuckey entered for the first time with 2:02 remaining. He scored on a driving layup that drew a foul at 1:44. He missed the foul shot, but came back on the next possession with another driving layup that drew a foul. He converted that free throw. Before the quarter ended, he took a charge and assisted on a 15-footer by Hibbert and a transition dunk by C.J. Miles that barely beat the buzzer.
Miles, fouled, hit the free throw and the Pacers finished what had begun as a frightening first quarter with a two-point lead.
Stuckey compiled an assist of Chris Copeland's 3-pointer, a steal, a 3-pointer of his own and two more foul shots before leaving the game midway through the second period. He re-entered at the start of the fourth quarter and added an 18-foot jumper, another 3-pointer, an assist on Copeland's second 3-pointer, and a foul shot.
It all amounted to a large contribution in a small amount of time, from someone who had played in only three pre-season games and still isn't in shape.
“I've learned not to be surprised with what Rodney Stuckey can do,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “I've been very, very impressed with him from the moment he got here. I think he's going to have a big season for us.”
As big a season as Stephenson would have?
“Of course; absolutely,” Vogel said. “They're different players, they're different people. He's not going to come in and be Lance Stephenson. He's going to be Rodney Stuckey. But he's a heckuva basketball player. I'm glad he's with us.”
Stuckey avoids the comparisons, too. He's just happy to be in a new place, with a new team, with a new outlook. He doesn't care whether he starts or comes off the bench, and that goes for later in the season, too. He doesn't care if he plays point guard or shooting guard, either. Ultimately, he'll play the same Renaissance role that Stephenson played last season – starting at shooting guard, then playing more like a point guard with the second unit.
But don't ask him how he compares to Stephenson.
“That's last year, man,” he said. “This is a whole new team. I don't worry about what he did. Lance was a big part of the team last year. This is a new year. He's not here. I'm going to go in and do what I can.”
It likely will be enough to make a lot of people forget.