Last year, Paul George and the Indiana Pacers proved they were for real by forcing the eventual champion Miami Heat into a tough seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals. With the status of Danny Granger once again up in the air entering this season, the Pacers knew they'd need Lance Stephenson to step his game up in order to advance to the NBA Finals.
So far, so good for Indiana who seems to have retained last year's momentum on it's way to a blistering 8-0 start. Much of the team's unblemished record can be attributed to George's continued emergence. Coupled with that, the presence provided down low by David West and Roy Hibbert has been pivotal in limiting opponents to a paltry 84.5 points per game.
One facet of Indiana's fast start which shouldn't be overlooked is the improved play of Stephenson. While this season is still in its infancy, the 23-year-old is on pace to post career-best numbers across the board (14.3 PTS, 5.9 REB, 5.8 AST).
That assist total represents the best on his team and by a wide margin. George is the next closest with 3.6 assists.
The highlight of Stephenson's 2013 thus far undoubtedly came in his team's most recent victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. In the contest, Stephenson posted his first career triple-double and continued to push questions about Danny Granger's availability to the wayside.
Whether or not Granger can return to productivity and even usurp Stephenson's spot in the starting lineup remains to be seen, but the early portion of this season represents the 23-year-old’s best shot to cement his role on this Pacers team.
If Stephenson can continue to provide a consistent threat as a scorer and a facilitator alongside George, then his team's chances of ending this season as champions, rather than just contenders, increases exponentially. The only thing standing in Stephenson's way is himself.
This highlight video emphasizes Stephenson's penchant for the spectacular. However, nobody's questioning Stephenson's ability to energize the crowd with a thunderous jam. The question is if he could provide this level of play consistently.
Consistency, or a lack thereof, has been one issue with Stephenson's play thus far. In an ugly three-game stretch against the Pistons, Bulls and Raptors, he knocked down less than a third of his shots, going 11-of-34 from the field.
While Stephenson’s lackluster performances weren't reflected in the loss column, these performances will be much tougher to overcome when the stakes are highest and the Pacers are pitted against the NBA's best. After all, Indiana's bound to give up 100 points eventually, and they'll need Stephenson's scoring punch to counteract that.
Nonetheless, rough patches are to be expected in the seemingly endless NBA season. What's important is that a player shows the ability to bounce back, and Stephenson has with a productive outing against the Nets as well as the aforementioned triple-double.
Another facet of Stephenson’s game that absolutely must improve is his ability to get to the free-throw line and convert those opportunities into points when he's afforded the chance. Through eight games, Stephenson has attempted just 14 free throws, and he's converted a Dwight Howard-esque 43 percent. Though a small sample size, this is inexcusable for a player who's knocked down more than 50 percent of his three-pointers this season.
It's crucial that Stephenson focuses on consistency in his overall game and at the charity stripe this season if his team is to overtake, rather than just challenge, the Miami Heat and the rest of the tough Eastern Conference.