As a sparingly used bench player during his first two NBA seasons, Lance Stephenson seemed like the kind of player who had the talent to do just about anything he wanted on the basketball court, but whose inconsistent focus and off-court issues might short-circuit his development into the kind of player who actually gets to try to do it in real NBA games. But the Brooklyn product turned heads last year, taking full advantage of the opportunity created by Danny Granger's season-long knee injury by grabbing firm hold of the Indiana Pacers' starting shooting guard slot, becoming a valuable part of one of the league's most dominant five-man units and authoring a breakout postseason performance that ousted the New York Knicks and pushed the Pacers into the Eastern Conference Finals.
With Granger once again sidelined to start this season, some wondered whether Stephenson could come up with a suitable encore. After the 23-year-old's performance against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night, it seems fair to think that he might just be getting started:
Stephenson turned in the first triple-double of his 140-game NBA career on Monday, scoring 13 points on 5 for 11 shooting, dishing a career-high 12 assists (with just one turnover) and ripping down 11 rebounds in 34 minutes of work in a 95-79 smackdown of the Memphis Grizzlies that kept the Pacers unbeaten at 8-0. The accumulation started kind of quietly — it surprised the heck out of me to see that he'd already put up eight points, nine boards and eight dimes in the first half of a game that was largely brutal and flash-less (which was somewhat predictable, given the hard-nosed nature of the two participants) — but Stephenson just kept impacting the game.
Not only was he helping his bigs on the defensive glass and pushing the tempo off his rebounds to try to catch the Grizzlies napping in transition — staples of his strong play last season — but he was also slowing down if those opportunities weren't there, running Frank Vogel's offense and showing more patience in teasing out plays to give his teammates an extra beat to find space to let it fly on time and on target. Lance was especially good at finding David West this way; he assisted on all five of the power forward's field goals on Monday.
While the 12 dimes were five more than he'd managed in any regular-season game to date, and four more than his career-best performance against the Atlanta Hawks in last year's playoffs, Vogel wasn't surprised that Stephenson was able to repeatedly find his teammates in rhythm, according to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
“It’s almost been his natural gift, passing the basketball,” Vogel said. “Forget his body, he’s got incredible athleticism and strength. What’s made Lance Stephenson unique is his ability, his basketball IQ, his instincts. His ability to share the basketball. He’s not a guy that goes out and do nine crossovers and hit a step back jumper. He’s got a unique ability to see the next play like some of the great passers in this game, so it’s no surprise to see what he’s doing with his assist totals.”
The numbers back up Vogel.
According to NBA.com, Stephenson averages 8.0 assist opportunities a game and 11.4 points are generated from his assists — that total is even more than designated starting point guards Mario Chalmers (Miami), Goran Dragic (Phoenix), Kemba Walker (Charlotte) and Raymond Felton (New York).
The SportVU optical tracking numbers back up some of the more traditional advanced metrics. Stephenson's assisting on a career-high 28.6 percent of his teammates' buckets while he's on the court, a double-digit increase over last year's mark, with only a slight increase in the frequency of his turnovers despite the larger ball-handling and playmaking responsibility.
The combination of his innate passing ability and improved patience is just one element making Stephenson more dangerous this year, though — he's also showcasing a much sharper shooting stroke this season, hitting a scorching 51.4 percent of his 3-pointers. And while he's hoisting a career-high 4.4 triples per game, almost all of them (3.9) are coming on catch-and-shoot opportunities created directly by a pass from a teammate, which he's canning at a 58.1 percent clip. As Vogel says, no array of crossovers and step-backs here; just a bunch of fat cut out of Stephenson's game, leaving an awful lot of muscle — he's one of just two players averaging more than 14 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game this season, joining four-time MVP LeBron James.
Vogel deserves a lot of credit for that careful cutting, as demonstrated in moments like a brief chat while Stephenson was in pursuit of his 10th assist, according to Buckner:
Later, Stephenson got [assist No. 9] when David West drilled a midrange jumper. But when he passed inside to Ian Mahinmi, and a foul ruined the golden assist, Stephenson couldn’t help but react. While Mahinmi stepped to the free throw line, Vogel called over Stephenson for a chat.
“He made a big smile and like that was what the moment was all about. And the moment was all about trying to beat the Grizzlies, so make sure he understood that,” Vogel said, revealing the conversation. “I just told him not to act on every play like he’s going for a triple-double. Act like you don’t even know about it.”
Stephenson nodded during the talk and understood. He would return to the flow of the game, and the game rewarded him back.
And Stephenson continues to reward Pacers fans, giving both their starting five and some reserve lineups a combination of playmaking, rebounding, perimeter defense and now shot-making that's making the 23-year-old one of the more versatile contributors in the Eastern Conference ... albeit one who'll still always have a little bit of Rucker in him, for better or for worse:
For that ball-fake, referee Josh Tiven received a pretty absurd technical foul, which Stephenson (and the rest of us) didn't really get:
After Tiven made the call, Vogel was upset but Stephenson walked around in absolute befuddlement.
“I ain’t think that was nothing. I’ve got that from Michael Jordan,” Stephenson told reporters after the game. “I’ve seen Michael Jordan do that all the time, now it’s a technical foul. So I don’t know if I’ll do that anymore.”
A landmark night, another impressive win and a lesson (albeit a seemingly unnecessary one) learned — that's just about a perfect outing for Stephenson, from Vogel's perspective. The coach doesn't need Stephenson to be like Mike; he just needs him to keep doing the little bit of everything that he's doing, and to keep doing it well enough to help keep the NBA's best team humming along.
Bonus: If you'd like a slightly different spin on Monday night's highlights, the proprietors of Oakley and Allen have set Stephenson's performance to the warming rhythms of De La Soul's "He Comes," featuring Ghostface Killah. There's some profanity in the song's lyrics, though, so head's up.
- - - - - - -