Photo: Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) is led away by coach Frank Vogel while reacting to a call during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards in Indianapolis, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The Pacers won 93-66. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – When I first drafted this story, Lance Stephenson was tearing up opponents through the first two months of the season as he staked his early claim as this season’s Most Improved Player of the Year frontrunner.
Then I pondered if the Pacers’ dynamic, but erratic two-guard could make the All-Star team by virtue of his invaluable contributions to team with the league’s best record.
As I sat at press box earlier this week for the Pacers-Kings game at the Fieldhouse, it was clearer that Stephenson deserved a spot.
The Pacers, who were coming from three days off since their last game – a home blowout win over the Washington Wizards last week – took to the court against a young and revamped Sacramento Kings reeling from a three-game winning streak and simply blew them out of the court.
Paul George, who is a lock at starting in the upcoming All-Star game in New Orleans, scored 31 points on 10-of-18 shooting to lead the way for the home team that also saw their head coach Frank Vogel clinch the All-Star coaching spot for the East after the win.
Top Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Roy Hibbert, will also likely join George and Vogel in New Orleans, but a third player who has truly emerged this season and received much of the “oohs” and ahhs” from the crowd was the fourth-year guard Stephenson.
The 23-year-old New York native took the game over at various stretches with his crowd-pleasing, in-your-face style and fancy passes as well as transition plays. Though he only finished with 13 points, all of which came in the first half, Stephenson’s energy and aggression provided the Pacers an edge other teams do not have, while his ability to create for his teammates relieves a lot of pressure from George and Hibbert on offense.
Photo: Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) comes down after being fouled by New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler on a shot during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The Pacers defeated the Knicks 117-89. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Stephenson was averaging career highs in points (13.3), rebounds (6.7) and assists (5.2) and has played a major role for the team who currently possesses the league’s best record (30-7) coming into Friday night’s game against the New York Knicks. And if there were doubts left about his All-Star inclusion, especially coming from those who haven’t watched more than five Pacer games this season, Stephenson cemented his case with a career night on national TV in front of NBA on TNT audiences.
Stephenson scored a career-high 28 points to go with four boards and four assists, and put on an All-Star show all by his own that left arena fans with their jaws dropped as the Pacers starched the Knicks.
Tabbed to be a “head case” after some off the court issues coming out of college, few gave Stephenson a shot at an extended, successful NBA career. Prior to last season, Stephenson’s claim to fame were his sideline antics in the 2012 NBA Playoffs, wherein he gestured the “choke” from the bench at LeBron James who was shooting free throws at the end of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
One person that did believe in Stephenson, however, is Pacers Team President, Larry Bird, who saw a diamond in the rough. Stephenson credits Bird for mentoring him and having faith in his abilities, which he says is a big reason for his success.
"He believed in me," Stephenson said of Bird. "He gave me the confidence that I could play in the league. Larry is a legend, and when he tells you that you can do this, and do that, it just boosts your confidence, makes you feel like no one can stop you."
Stephenson has indeed been a force to be reckoned with this season, and is a big reason for the Pacers’ amazing run so far. But as far as the All-Star talk is concerned, Stephenson says all he cares about is helping his team win and could care less if he isn’t named to the team.
Give that man a ticket to New Orleans.