The Indiana Pacers are coming off a successful 49-32 season, taking the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. With the NBA season having just begun this past week, it may be far too early to review any roster moves and signings. However, none of the aforementioned success would have been possible without shooting guard Lance Stephenson, whom Indiana must extend through next season.
The Pacers two star players in Paul George and Roy Hibbert may deserve most of the credit, but Stephenson was a big contributor to Indiana's success last year. His 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season aren't highly indicative of this, but Stephenson provides intangibles that don't always show up in the stat sheet.
His versatility and speed on both ends of the court aren't ably measured or calculated, but are impossible to miss watching him play. Stephenson's athleticism also plays a role, making him an ideal player alongside his insanely athletic teammate in George. Much like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James overpower opponents with their dual attack, so too can Stephenson and George combine as a tangible duo on the perimeter.
They might not have the skill or appeal of the two Miami All-Stars, however it bears resemblance to a certain extent. Stephenson has a better outside jumper than Wade, which seems to only have improved in the offseason. He shot 33 percent from beyond the arc last season, which has been upped to 64.3 percent thus far. Of course, this percentage will dwindle as the season goes on and settle at a normal rate. However, Stephenson is knocking down three long-range shots per game, vastly improved over last season's 0.8 makes per contest.
The Pacers ran Stephenson as a spot-up shooter 22 percent of the time last season according to Synergy Sports, which is a trend that will only continue as George receives more attention from opposing defenses this season. The guard knocked down 36.3 percent of his shots in spot-up situations, with 33.1 percent accuracy from deep. If he can continue that into this season, with the chance of a slight improvement, he'll make a deadly wing that defenses can't afford to leave open.
A further skill Stephenson possesses is his ball-handling. As a guard, it's seemingly expected for him to be solid dribbling the ball. What separates Stephenson from the pack is the increased awareness and control he has over the ball, as seen with his four assists per game average this season. He's committing just 1.7 turnovers in 36.3 minutes as well, and thus ranks seventh with a 2.40 assist-to-turnover ratio amongst shooting guards.
What stands out most of all is how good a complimentary player Stephenson is. He does a little bit of everything on both offense and defense, and meshes well with George Hill in the backcourt. Their feisty defensive mindsets cause havoc for opponents, which made Indiana one of the best defensive teams in the league last season.
The Pacers ranked first in both opponent field-goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage last season, at impressive rates of 42 percent and 32.7 percent respectively. So far this season, Indiana is ranked first in opponent points per game at 83.7 percent, in addition to first in opponent field-goal percentage at 37.9 percent.
While it is ultimately a team effort on defense, it would be hardly inaccurate to credit Hill and Stephenson, as well as George, for keeping the perimeter locked down. Stephenson held opponents to 39.6 percent shooting overall last season, according to Synergy Sports, providing insight into his well developed skills as a defender.
While Wade was injured for much of the postseason last year, Stephenson had a big role in keeping the Hall of Fame-bound guard to 15.4 points per game in the Eastern Conference Finals. Wade shot below 45 percent in five of the seven games, dropping as low as 27.3 percent as Indiana stole away Game 6 at home.
So far this season, the Pacers have faced the Cleveland Cavaliers, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Orlando Magic. Stephenson has been matched up against Dion Waiters, Eric Gordon and Arron Afflalo in those respective games, and suffice it to say, all three can put up big scoring numbers. Despite this, the 6'5" guard has held them to a combined 18-of-54 shooting from the field (or 34 percent).
In opposite fashion, Stephenson is causing havoc on offense with an average of 19 points per game . He's also snagging 6.7 rebounds and the aforementioned four assists, and has a well-rounded approach to the game. What makes him most appealing is his age, as he just turned 23 in September. The Pacers are looking to become a championship contender, and their core is built around the youth of George and Hibbert.
Stephenson should absolutely be a part of that group, as his intangible and versatile style of play meshes extremely well with Indiana's rotation players. His ability to perform on both ends of the floor is key, as Indiana dominates on offense and defense and needs personnel like Stephenson to do so.
He's receiving just $1 million, according to HoopsWorld, from the Pacers this season, and may very well make a case for "most underpaid player" as well as Most Improved Player. Every team can use a guy like Stephenson, however, Indiana must ensure none have the chance and sign him to a long-term deal.