INDIANAPOLIS — The writing is on the wall. Lance Stephenson reads it, knows it and is completely at peace with it.
One day in the not-so-distant future, small forward Danny Granger is going to high-five his way onto the court as one-fifth of the Indiana Pacers starting lineup.
What this means is that the 6-foot-5 Stephenson, a starter in 52 of the team’s 60 games so far this season, won’t.
There was a time in Stephenson’s young professional basketball career when such inevitability would have been more difficult to digest than sour milk. Pouting rooted in a major case of self-pity might have been involved. And there’s a chance certain opinions would have exited his mouth, the kind Stephenson only later would wish he could reel back in.
Not now. Not this Lance Stephenson.
As the minutes of the 6-8 Granger progressively increase with the veteran forward returning from the knee injury that sidelined him the team’s first 55 games, Stephenson’s role changes in accordance.
Eventually, his talents will be used to strengthen a bench unit that has run hot and cold in terms of productivity and dependability this season.
“Lance knows he’s going to be a major part of this team. He’s earned my trust and the trust of his teammates,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “It’s Danny Granger we’re bringing back, not a D-League guy. I have been happy with our bench play. Of late it’s been one of our strengths, and Lance will only make it better.”
It tends to be forgotten that Stephenson, whose immaturity had a way of grating at people during his first couple of NBA seasons, is only 22, having played just one season of college basketball. So while he still has a long way to go, the strides Stephenson has made in that department shouldn’t be overlooked when analyzing why the Pacers own the Eastern Conference’s second-best record.
“Danny coming back makes us better. Whatever coach decides to do is fine with me,” said Stephenson, who averages 8.5 points a game this season, but helped the Pacers go 9-3 in February by averaging 11.2. “I’m a creator, and I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
The growing-up process hasn’t completely rid Stephenson of his gift for on-court chatter. Anything but. He can gab his way immediately beneath another player’s skin as long as basketball is involved. Practices. Games. Pre-game shoot-arounds. Opponents. Even teammates.
It’s the Brooklyn in him.
“When I play in practice I’m trying to make the team more energized. Before they would get on me about it, but now I’ve got the coaches trust,” said Stephenson, who like many current and previous NBA players honed his game on the asphalt and concrete surfaces of New York City while growing up.“I feel that’s my game. If I’m not talking I don’t feel like I’m doing anything. It makes me feel better.”
He offers an example:
“In one of our games against Detroit recently, I fed the ball to Roy (Hibbert). He was waiting for me to cut, and I was yelling, ‘Take him. Take him,’” said Stephenson, sensing a mismatch.
Hibbert took the advice and scored.
Stephenson is eventually going to be sitting down and still donning his warm-ups when offering his brand of encouragement to teammates. Or so it will be when the game begins.
But for Indiana to be No. 1, it’s going to need No. 1. Vogel and every player he coaches knows it.