By JOSH NEWMAN
Special to ZAGSBLOG
NEW YORK – Still just 22 years old, it has taken Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson a little while to get acclimated to the NBA, but this, his third year in the league has been a bit of a revelation. The former Lincoln High School star, born and bred in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, has matured to the point where his head coach has certainly taken notice.
“I just talked to him about his family, he’s got his mind in the right place,” New Jersey native Frank Vogel said Sunday before Stephenson scored 11 points to go along with 13 rebounds as the Pacers beat the Knicks, 102-95, in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semifinals series. “He told everybody ‘no’ for tickets so it wouldn’t be a distraction.”
“It’s just something about these lights, something about this atmosphere,” said Stephenson, who won four PSAL championships at Madison Square Garden as a Railsplitter. “It’s always been a special place to me and a place I always look forward to playing.”
Stephenson noted postgame that he did actually purchase five tickets for his family, but something as simple as limiting the distractions in his home city is an example of maturity and a nice complement to what Stephenson he has done on the floor this season and in these playoffs.
“Tickets are very expensive and I’m not trying to waste my money,” he said, according to the New York Post.
Stephenson moved into the starting lineup this season following knee problems that cost Danny Granger all but five games this season. A career-year during the regular season ensued as he averaged of 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 rebounds in 78 games. In a 4-2 win over the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, Stephenson averaged 7.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists over the six games.
“Lance, the past three games, has been one of our best players,” teammate Paul George said. “When he is playing at that level we are a tough team. We feed off his energy anytime he plays at that level.”
The fact that Stephenson has steadily morphed into more of an all-around threat on the offensive end was on display as he scored only eight points, but grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out six assists in an 81-73 win.
The Pacers were patient when they took Stephenson with the 40th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft after he spent one season at the University of Cincinnati, where he took home Big East Rookie of the Year honors. A star since he was 12 years old, Stephenson wasn’t the focal point for the first time upon his arrival in the Heartland.
New York State’s all-time time leading high school scorer at 2,946 points and the only player to win four consecutive PSAL championships, Stephenson reciprocated the organization’s patience. He has worked hard, kept his mouth closed, showed a willingness to learn and the results are continuing to be produced as the NBA season heads into mid-May.
“When I was in high school, I would just go, I would just try to bully everyone,” Stephenson said. “You realize it’s much different once you get to the NBA. Everyone is on your level or better than you and you really have to think and re-tool and find ways to help the team.”
“He’s one of the best open-court pushers in the NBA,” Vogel added on Sunday. “He’s like a freight train with the size of his body and ability and his speed to make plays.”
Stephenson is part of a young team that counts David West as the only player north of 30 at the age of 32. Paul George made his first All-Star Game this season at the age of 22, 26-year-old George Hill had a career-year and 26-year-old All-Star Center Roy Hibbert remains a double-double threat, not to mention remarkably healthy for a player that stands 7-foot-2.
George, Hill and Hibbert are all signed through at least the 2014-15 season, while the 30-year-old Granger is signed through next season. Having finished 49-32 and second in the Central Division this season, the Pacers’ future is bright and Stephenson is at the forefront.
Making just over $915,000 this season, Stephenson has a team option worth just shy of $1 million that the Pacers have yet to pick up.
“I really like him, he’s been good with me as a player off the court and on the court,” Pacers President of Basketball Operations Donnie Walsh said recently. “He works hard, he’s got a big upside. He still hasn’t reached a lot of the potential he has, but he’s helped us because he does some things that we really need done and he’s the only guy that can do it.”