Running with the grey shirts in practice, he’s clearly in his element. Sprinting as if he were in a track meet, juking defenders off the dribble, adding playground spice to his passes – but above all else, making plays.
No wonder Lance Stephenson is accepting a Sixth Man role with the Pacers. Not that he’s in much of a position to complain, given his recent history, but if he’s Born Ready to do anything it’s to take over a game and light a fire under teammates and fans.
“I’m just happy I have a role,” he said following Wednesday’s practice. “The last three years, I didn’t have a role. I was waiting for a role. Now that I have a role and the coach tells me what he needs from me and I know what I need to do to help the team, the game will come easy. I’m embracing the Sixth Man role, and I’m having fun doing it.
“Coming off the bench, you get to see the game. When you come in, you know what type of energy the team needs. I’m definitely the guy who can do that off the bench.”
Stephenson got a trial run over the final 10 games last season, six in the regular season and four in the playoffs, and redirected the entire season’s momentum. The Pacers took Cleveland to overtime in Cleveland before losing in his first game back, then won their final five to qualify for the playoffs. They followed by challenging the Cavs in each playoff game, losing all four by a combined 16 points.
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It was a major shift from his first four seasons with the Pacers, when he was a rising star seemingly headed for All-Star appearances. He also was out of shape and dealing with injuries to his ankle, knee and psyche after a three-season sojourn through four other teams. Still, he averaged 7.2 points, 4 rebounds and 4.2 assists while playing 22 minutes per game.
More than that he was an emotional catalyst, igniting a laid-back roster and frustrated fan base to an intensity level not seen since the opening game of the season.
It would be logical to think he should start in the upcoming season, as he had done for the Pacer teams that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and ’14. But it’s not as logical in coach Nate McMillan’s mind as balancing the scoring and playmaking by bringing him off the bench.
McMillan sat down with Stephenson over the summer after Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic had been acquired and explained his plan. He talked about Manu Ginobili, who has played primarily as a Sixth Man in 10 of his 15 seasons with San Antonio. He told Stephenson he would still play “starter’s minutes,” which is generally regarded as 30 or more, and would have more opportunities to play to his strengths with the second team.
“It’s his ability to create on the offensive end of the floor,” McMillan said. “You need that with the guy playing the Sixth Man role. He’s going to create a lot of things for that second unit. There’s a little limitation there; we have guys who will be good, but they’ll be good with each other. Lance will initiate that. I can put the ball in his hands a lot more in that second unit.”
NBA teams don’t automatically have a designated Sixth Man. More often than not, they simply have backups at each position. Sometimes, though, teams have a reserve who is obviously good enough to start but bring him off the bench for the sake of team chemistry or morale.
On those occasions, the role becomes prestigious, reflecting a player who is both productive and self-sacrificing. The Pacers have had two in particular.
Detlef Schrempf was voted the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 1991 and ’92 while with the Pacers. He averaged 17.3 points on 54 percent shooting and 9.6 rebounds while playing 32.6 minutes in the 1991-92 season, ranking fourth on the team in both minutes played and scoring. He started for the Pacers the following season, earning an All-Star berth.
Al Harrington was runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year (behind Antawn Jamison) in 2004, after averaging 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. He ranked third in both points and minutes that season.
Stephenson, who nearly made the Eastern Conference All-Star team in 2014, seems capable of similar production as Schrempf and Harrington, but brings the added elements of adrenaline and suspense.
The word most often associated with him is “crazy.” He earned that reputation in his first chapter with the Pacers by blowing in LeBron’s ear, giving LeBron the choke sign, laying on the floor too long after drawing fouls, talking trash to teammates in practice and starring in a zany video to promote his All-Star candidacy.
Stephenson threatened to become a distraction in his previous seasons, although he never spoke inappropriately in the locker room or failed to give maximum effort. This time around, he seems nothing but a positive factor. Anytime someone brings up the word “crazy” regarding Stephenson now, they quickly follow with a clarification.
“Lance is a willing passer, and I like (a sixth man) role for him,” team president Kevin Pritchard said. “He can get a little crazy sometimes, but I like that. He gets his teammates fired up. If we can corral that, we’ll really have something.”
Added Thad Young: “He’s a crazy dude, man. He’s crazy.”
“But he’s a great teammate.” Very passionate about the game, very passionate about his teammates. Biggest thing is, he wants to win. He’s willing to come in the gym and work each and every day.”
Glenn Robinson III wasn’t around for Stephenson’s first four seasons with the Pacers, but he was on the floor with Stephenson late last season. He saw then what can happen when fuel is added to smoldering embers, and he’s seeing it again now in practice.
“Bringing that light that he brings,” Robinson said of Stephenson’s impact.
“That’s what brought us back to make our playoff push last year. Some people might call it crazy, but he knows what he’s doing. Somebody has to do that. You need a guy like that on this team.”
Robinson and Stephenson already are finding chemistry on the second unit, where they’re joined by along with Cory Joseph, Domantas Sabonis, Al Jefferson and/or T.J. Leaf. Joseph is the backup point guard, one who started successfully on occasion in Toronto, but Stephenson will handle the ball just as frequently – especially when he grabs the rebound and goes with it.
The others know by now they need to run with him.
“We’re figuring each other out already,” Stephenson said. “That’s because we’ve been here all summer. That second unit is going to be big.”
The day might come when Stephenson wants to become a starter again. The day might come when the team needs for him to start again. But for now, at this time and in this place, he’s right at home.
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