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Pacers' patience in promising guard starting to pay off

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There has always been an air of mystery surrounding third-year Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson.

Whether he’s sitting on the bench chatting with teammates, deliberately simulating game situations in pregame warmups or powering the ball strong to the basket in a game, the same question is being asked. Silently by some, audibly by others.

What if?

For most of Stephenson’s 22 years his incredible basketball skills and passion for the game dwarfed his off-court maturity level.

Questionable actions at various stages of his life seemed to etch a small asterisk next to the surname of the Brooklyn, N.Y., native, fair or unfair.

The first half of this Pacers season has served as the eraser. Or at least Stephenson hopes.

Averaging career-best numbers in minutes (27), points (7.8), rebounds (3.3), assists (2.6) and steals (0.9), the 6-foot-5, 228-pound Stephenson has greatly benefited the franchise as it continues to remain relevant minus the services of injured veteran swingman Danny Granger.

“He’s getting there,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said with a smile. “Certainly Lance has come a long way since his rookie year, that’s for sure. His professionalism. His demeanor in the locker room in terms of less clowning around.

“On the court, it’s just his confidence.”

Already this season Stephenson has been in Vogel’s starting lineup on 28 occasions, which is 27 more than during his first two seasons combined.

Maybe it’s that he’s growing up. Then again, never underestimate the power of a comfortable jersey number.

He’s the ‘1’

A certain amount of swagger is required for a professional athlete to actually want to wear the No. 1 jersey because of the pressure it invites.

Want people to look at you? Wear the “1.” Want fans to think you’re special? Wear the “1.” Want to hear about it when your performances are un-1-worthy? You get the idea.

Not everyone can do it. Not everyone wants to.

Stephenson, who modeled the number at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, wore No. 33 in his one season at the University of Cincinnati and No. 6 his first two seasons with the Pacers.

When the team traded small forward Dahntay Jones to Dallas in July, numero uno was up for grabs. Stephenson didn’t hesitate showing off his quick first step.

“I asked for No. 1 because I like to be No. 1 in everything,” Stephenson said. “It’s a powerful number. When I was growing up, Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady wore No. 1, and they were my two favorite players along with Oscar Robertson.”

The Big O triple-doubled his way into legend long before Stephenson was even born. It should be noted, however, that Robertson, a fellow Cincy Bearcat, late in his NBA career wore No. 1 as a star guard for the Milwaukee Bucks from 1970-74.

Bond with Bird

Stephenson possesses a keen sense of and respect for Indiana hoops history. He idolizes Robertson, as well as former Pacers president Larry Bird, without dispute two of the premier players the state ever produced, if not the two best.

Stephenson was a 19-year-old kid with a chip on his shoulder and a Bird in his corner when Indiana selected him in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft.

Larry Legend saw enormous potential. Something special. So much, in fact, that the Pacers kept Stephenson around those first two seasons when his productivity level all but invited being waived or traded elsewhere.

“Larry Bird is one of the keenest evaluators of talent in this game,” Vogel said.

It’s a captivating mix, really, the former country kid from Orange County building an unbreakable rapport with the young man from the projects of Brooklyn. Even during what is perceived to be a brief retirement from NBA administrative duties, Bird continues to send inspirational text messages to Stephenson before big games, like Tuesday’s 87-77 home victory against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat.

“No matter what, he’s always been in my corner. He’s always told me I was very talented but that I had to learn to limit my mistakes,” Stephenson said. “He’ll text me a quote or a positive message before tough games. It means a lot. He’s a legend.

“For him to be in your corner, that’s great. If I prove to everyone else that he was right about my talent, the sky is the limit.”

Still a work in progress

Stephenson doesn’t want to let Bird down. Or Vogel. Or himself. Or the No. 1.

Whatever flashes of immaturity he’s demonstrated in the past — he was arrested for pushing his girlfriend and the mother of his child down a flight of stairs in August 2010 — Stephenson would like to keep right there while continuing to become a man in a man’s league.

Moments of inconsistency continue, though. Stephenson will be the first to tell you he’s not a finished product. On two occasions this season he’s logged 25 minutes of court time and produced zero points.

Conversely, Stephenson’s versatility shines through more often than not in terms of how he scores and the defensive match-ups Vogel is able to implement.

Perhaps his best all-around game this season came three days after Christmas in a 97-91 win against Phoenix in which Stephenson scored 10 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dished five assists and made three steals.

Like his coach said, Lance Stephenson is getting there. Meanwhile, somewhere in temperatures warmer than these, a 56-year-old man still recognized wherever he goes pays special attention from afar.

“It’s funny; I feel old. I feel I’ve been in the league a while,” Stephenson said. “I felt like in those first two years I needed to learn how to play the game and how to be a professional.

“This year, I felt like I was definitely ready.”

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