COMMENTARY | It was supposed to be the Summer of George. Instead, June through October of 2012 apparently was the Summer of Stephenson.
That's Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson. Casual NBA fans might not know of him, but this third-year player -- and not his high-flying teammate Paul George -- is the most improved Pacer this year. He might also be the key to saving the team's season.
Year 3 is when many high-potential players make sizable leaps forward in their careers, when they advance from key contributors to fringe All-Stars. This type of jump is what NBA fans, especially those in Indianapolis, expected from George. Those expectations were justified. George is an über-athletic 6'10" (he's often listed at 6'8" but grew two inches before his second season) wing player with a smooth game and all the physical tools needed to be a star.
To further fuel fans' expectations, George told Pacers.com during the team's media day his time spent with the U.S.A. Men's Select Team during the summer should help him take a "huge jump" in his third year.
But George hasn't demonstrated significant on-court growth this season. Yes, he's averaging more points per game but is doing so by playing more minutes and taking more shots. In 2011-12, he averaged 12.1 points per game playing just shy of 30 minutes. This year, he's playing more than 35 minutes in the absence of Danny Granger but is only scoring three more points per game.
Meanwhile, Stephenson's relatively pedestrian numbers (7.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists) have arguably been more eye-opening. Why? Because unlike George, Stephenson is showing definitive progress in his game.
The Cincinnati product's talent has never been in question. Instead, it was largely Stephenson's lack of maturity and on-court awareness that held him back in his first two seasons. In his final end-of-season press conference, former Pacers president Larry Bird said he thought Stephenson had made great strides in those areas. In his own media day interview with Pacers.com before this season, Stephenson made similar claims.
This year, he's proving those comments weren't just talk. His improved numbers aren't sexy, but he's playing smart enough to keep himself on the court for nearly 26 minutes per game. That's 2.4 times what he was playing last season, and almost four minutes more than Gerald Green, from whom he stole the starting shooting guard position. And he isn't just starting games; he's on the floor to finish them, too.
In addition to his maturity, Stephenson's game also is improving. His overall field goal percentage is up dramatically, and his 3-point percentage has jumped from 13 percent last year to 40 percent. That's slightly higher than the percentages of both George and Granger, the former all-star he's replacing in the lineup.
Speaking of Granger, the Pacers have struggled this season without him. His absence isn't the only reason for the team's struggles, but finding another consistent contributor on the wing could go a long way toward realigning this team with its preseason expectations.
When news broke that Granger would miss the first thee months of the season with a lingering knee injury, fans understandably expected George to take the next big step in his career and fill the void. Instead, the biggest boost has come from Stephenson's timely progression -- not George's.
His lack of jaw-dropping dunks will keep him from receiving as much attention as his teammate, but Stephenson's accomplishments this year are more valuable than any highlight reel appearance. He's the Pacers' most improved player and may be just what the team needs to keep afloat until its star player returns.
Kevin Kane is a professional reporter, editor and columnist in the Indianapolis area, covering almost everything from professional sports to local government. You can follow him on Twitter @KevinKane2.
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