By MOKE HAMILTON
Special to ZAGSBLOG
NEW YORK — Lance Stephenson returned home to Brooklyn Saturday night, but ultimately the man known as “Born Ready” wants to remain in Indiana.
The former Lincoln High School star is in the final year of a deal paying him slightly less than $1 million and will become a free agent next summer.
The way he’s been playing, he should be in for a big payday, too.
“I wouldn’t want to leave a good team like this. I definitely would love to come back,” Stephenson said, via USA Today. “I just love the city. I love the team. I love who I play with and I feel like we’re a young group and I think we should stick together.”
Still, the Pacers have about $60 million committed for next year, and may offer Stephenson a mid-level deal if they want to stay under the luxury-tax.
One thing is clear: after a rocky start to his NBA career, Stephenson has become a steady and integral piece to the Pacers, who remain the NBA’s lone unbeaten team at 7-0 after a 96-91 win over the Nets in which Stephenson went for 15 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds.
“I dreamed of these days when I could star on an NBA team, and it’s happening,” he said after the game. “It’s always a blessing here to play against the Nets.”
Stephenson purchased and distributed 20 tickets for the matchup in Brooklyn, but said that there were another 40 who wanted to be on hand.
“You can’t get everyone tickets,” he said with a chuckle, so quite a few will have to continue to monitor his progression from afar. At least for now.
Entering play on Saturday, Stephenson’s impressive per-game averages were quite conspicuous: 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 46.5 percent shooting from the field, including 50 percent shooting from three-point territory.
“He seems to have taken another giant step,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “His offense, playing within [the system] and his defensive discipline.”
Though it is still early in the season, those numbers are scary-good, especially for a team that believes it is on the cusp of greatness.
Stephenson, making his first of two trips to Brooklyn this season, was jovial and energetic before the contest, but according to his coach, Stephenson brings consistent energy each night. That, in part, is what has enabled him to be successful.
“[Lance] is the kind of guy who’s gonna be up for every game,” Vogel said. “He just brings that type of edge, whether you’re playing a middle of the week game at home or you’re playing in an environment like [Saturday night]. I just think he brings an edge every time he’s on the court.”
To his credit, since being selected by the Pacers with the 40th overall pick of the 2010 NBA draft, Stephenson has grown tremendously.
During last season’s deep playoff run in which the Pcers took the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, Stephenson started all 19 of the Pacers’ playoff games.
During that deep run, Stephenson averaged 9.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists. After coming dangerously close to winning the Eastern Conference, the Pacers have added appreciable talent to their team, including Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, but it is Stephenson’s improved play that has caught the attention of Pacers head coach Frank Vogel and president Larry Bird.
“He was a non-rotation player that ended up playing 40 minutes a game in the playoffs for a team that was one game from the Finals,” Vogel said.
Asked about his development, Stephenson said: “Watching film and learning the game. It’s not just about talent, you gotta be smart on the floor and make great decisions and be consistent at all times.”
Photo: USA Today Sports
Moke Hamilton is the NBA Analyst for SNY.tv and an NBA Columnist for USA Today Sports. Follow him on Twitter: @MokeHamilton.