He's wild and poised, brash and humble. He's beloved in the Circle City and hated in every other NBA arena.
The 23-year-old has failed to live up to once-lofty expectations, yet has lifted his ceiling during each of his three-plus seasons in the Association. He's been both a basketball prodigy and a lost cause but has carved out a wildly productive identity in the middle ground.
He may never be the game-changing talent fans saw when "Born Ready" was tearing through the famed New York City hoops scene. But he could be the final boost needed to help the Pacers clear their championship hurdle.
Stephenson's game looks like one whose craft was honed on the blacktop. It's been his blessing and his curse.
On the plus side, it's helped him strengthen the string between his hand and the basketball. He's a nightmare matchup for one-on-one defenders, with the ability to attack either direction and the strength to finish plays at the rim.
But simply getting buckets isn't enough. He needs his defender to feel a sense of failure, then make sure everyone in the gym picks up on it, too.
That flair is an acquired taste, but one that needs proper placement to be understood. It's not about humiliating his defender; it's about putting on a show for the paying crowd.
"When the crowd’s into it, I try to do something to get the crowd hyped," he said, via Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe.
There's one way for defenses to stop his antics—stop his production. But that's much easier said than done.
The Pacers have other mouths to feed, but Stephenson consistently shines when his number is called. If he gets a chance to go head-up with his defender, it's almost always a win for Indiana.
He's a dynamic isolation player. On the season, he's put up 0.93 points per possession on those plays, the 23rd-best ranking in the league, via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
But strong one-on-one play is a staple of the streetball world. What makes Stephenson such an impactful NBA talent is the way he's expanded the rest of his game.
He's a selfless supporter, with the court vision and passing touch to maximize that willingness to share the wealth.
Since Indiana's primary point guards, George Hill and C.J. Watson, are better scorers than distributors, Stephenson's setup skills are more necessities than luxuries in this offense. He leads the team with 5.1 assists per game, a number that's more remarkable than it sounds considering his 19.1 percent usage rate ranks just seventh on the roster.
Away from the ball, he's still a potent producer. His 37.5 three-point percentage shatters his previous career best (33.0). Despite being an average athlete by NBA standards, his determination and strength—oh, and 230-pound frame—make him a terror around the basket. He's notched 1.32 points per possession on cuts, 30th best overall.
He's still maturing as a defender. He gambles more than he should and doesn't have the highest marks in awareness.
But the talent and drive are there for him to be a force at that end of the floor. Even with these occasional judgment lapses, he's still holding opposing shooting guards to just a 10.2 player efficiency rating, via 82games.com. And his glasswork—6.7 rebounds in 35.2 minutes a night—is some of the best that the shooting guard position has ever seen.
He scratches whatever itch Indiana has.
He can push the tempo when the half-court offense gets stagnant. He can take on the toughest defensive assignments to save Paul George's energy for the opposite end. If there's a loose ball to be had, Stephenson will devour it. For a team looking to snap the Miami Heat's three-year reign over the conference, he instills the confidence that the Pacers need to complete the job.
His versatility screams X-factor, but that might not be the only thing we're calling him by season's end.
Recognition Is Coming
By themselves, Stephenson's numbers might be easy to overlook. They don't carry the wow factor in any single category.
But that's perhaps his biggest gift. His stat sheets as a whole are so much greater than the sum of their parts:
.@StephensonLance the only player this season with multiple triple-doubles. He has 3 of the total 12 (25%) trip-dubs this season— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) December 23, 2013
He's not a transcendent scorer. He seemingly doesn't have the build to put up gaudy rebounding totals (but does anyway). The opportunity isn't there for him to make a run at the assists crown.
Yet it's hard to ignore what this type of production should mean for his future:
An All-Star appearance might be tough—although the fact that he plays in the Eastern Conference will help his chances—but he could be looking at some season-ending hardware.
His breakout campaign is the reason that the Most Improved Player award exists. This is a different Lance Stephenson than NBA fans had ever seen before.
And stat trackers aren't the only ones seeing his improvement. The man himself has taken notice of his efforts:
“I feel like every shot is going in when I shoot. That’s how confident I feel right now.” - @StephensonLance— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) December 24, 2013
There's always a political side to award voting, and perhaps Stephenson's reputation will hinder the support. But credit Pacers coach Frank Vogel for staying in front of the issue and working on Stephenson's M.I.P. campaign:
Vogel on Stephenson: “I think hands down, he’s the Most Improved Player in the league so far. He continues to give us a great lift."— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) December 24, 2013
Whether an All-Star nod or individual hardware eventually comes his way will be settled in due time. He's not going to let those pursuits remove him from the present.
Players and coaches always preach the importance of taking things one step at a time. Stephenson actually embodies that approach.
"His best attribute is probably that his engine is always on," his high school coach Dwayne Morton said, via Pacers.com's Scott Agness. "Every time he steps onto the basketball court, you can't see anything lackadaisical part his game."
Those white-collar skills that launched his rise in the Empire State never left, but they're bolstered now by an insatiable blue-collar work ethic. Throw in his NYC swag, and you have an insanely gifted, supremely confident and forcibly humbled star finally ready to make his true NBA mark.
That mark could be magnificent, something even greater than those salivating scouts had imagined years ago.
If the Pacers are raising a championship banner in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse rafters next year, don't be surprised if the fabric looks a little smudged. Those will just be the fingerprints of Lance Stephenson, the NBA's ultimate X-factor.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.