Lance Stephenson shows Nets just how good he's gotten
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Talk of an All-Star selection? Comparisons to LeBron James?
They can't be referring to the same Lance Stephenson who was bolted to the bench in his first two NBA seasons, can they?
Yeah, it's the same Stephenson. The one from Lincoln High in Brooklyn. And Pacers coach Frank Vogel can't believe how much he's improved in his fourth season with Indiana.
"No," Vogel deadpanned before Stephenson's Pacers routed the Nets, 103-86, Monday night at Barclays Center. "I say that with strong conviction. We had a great deal of belief in him that he would be a heck of a basketball player, but I did not envision it happening this quickly."
Stephenson led the Pacers with 26 points (a career high), seven rebounds and five assists.
"I had my whole family come out to watch me," Stephenson said. "I was just very motivated. I couldn't sleep at night."
He didn't get his fourth triple-double of the season (he had one Sunday against the Celtics), but he sparked the Pacers' offense in his Brooklyn homecoming. The 6-5 guard is averaging 13.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.
"I don't know if he's an All-Star, but he should definitely be in the conversation," Vogel said.
This is a far cry from three years ago, when Stephenson played in only 12 games as a rookie after leaving Cincinnati following his freshman year. Things got only marginally better for him in 2011-12, when he averaged 10.5 minutes in 42 games.
Defense was his biggest negative then, and it still is. But he's gotten better at that, and his offensive versatility is too valuable to keep him off the court. "I don't know anybody else besides LeBron James who can give you a triple-double like he can," center Roy Hibbert said.
Added Vogel: "He's hands-down the most improved player in the league."
Stephenson said all he needed was "the opportunity and the confidence." He added, "I felt like when I came to Indy, I had a lot of the vets put me in my place and help me learn the game, show me the right things to do."
On Monday night, he turned back the clock to his days playing at Lincoln in Coney Island, where he led the Railsplitters to an unprecedented four straight PSAL city titles. He was the best player on a Brooklyn court and his team was the best in the city.
Stephenson said he loves playing in front of friends and family but had to spring for 25 tickets Monday night. "I'm gonna be broke," he joked.
If he keeps playing like this, he won't have to worry. He'll have a massive payday coming in July when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.