Not long ago, Lance Stephenson was an immature player Indiana Pacers fans loved to hate.
Today, he’s an indispensable player fans adore for his critical role in the team’s historic start.
No longer a chemistry killer with a bad attitude, the multi-skilled guard is a popular teammate whose versatility — and properly channeled emotions — have been pivotal to the Pacers’ 8-0 start.
Building off last year’s breakout season, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Stephenson is the Pacers’ second-leading scorer (14.3 points per game), their best 3-point shooter (51 percent) and is one of their most efficient ball-handlers and defenders on a balanced team that’s off to its best start in franchise history.
Stephenson, who had his first career triple-double during Monday’s 95-79 win against visiting Memphis, has done his share to get them there.
“I’m just being aggressive, playing like I normally play,” said Stephenson, who’s in his second season as a starter. “Everybody’s playing great defense, everybody is just playing together.”
But Stephenson was not always part of the togetherness. He was, at times, a polarizing presence.
In August 2010, less than two months after being drafted in the second round by the Pacers,
Stephenson was arrested for allegedly shoving his girlfriend, the mother of his child, down a flight of stairs — an alarming incident for a franchise trying to clean up its post-brawl image.
Although the case eventually was dismissed, Stephenson reported for his first training camp with anything but a squeaky clean image. Though touted by team president Larry Bird as a uniquely talented player, Stephenson’s first two seasons were marred by clashes with teammates and erratic play that threatened his career before it took off.
But last season, it did take off.
Having put the maturity issues behind him, Stephenson — with mentoring from Bird and Vogel — made the most of an unforeseen opportunity when Danny Granger was sidelined for all but five games of the 2012-13 season with a knee injury.
Stephenson not only filled the starting position, he did it well enough to help the Pacers reach the Eastern Conference Finals and within one game of playing for the NBA championship. He started 72 of 78 games, with averages of 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.
Eight games into his fourth season, Stephenson has taken even greater opportunity of yet another unforeseen Granger absence.
Though not a focal point of an offense built around Paul George, David West and, to lesser degrees, George Hill and Roy Hibbert, Stephenson has nonetheless made his presence felt in a huge way.
Picking and choosing his moments effectively, Stephenson shoots 47 percent from the field — which is tied with George for the best accuracy among starters — and leads the Pacers in 3-point accuracy, with 18 makes in 35 attempts.
Moreover, Stephenson is second on the team in assists at 5.8 per game and is among its rebound leaders at 5.9 per game. Both are career-highs, as are his 35.5 minutes per game average, second only to George’s 36.6.
“Kudos to Lance. Let’s see if he can keep that up,” Hibbert said after Stephenson lit Memphis for 13 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. “I know he can keep that up. I’m happy for him.”
So is Vogel, who has nothing but praise for a once-embattled player who has gone from the brink of NBA extinction to the cusp of All-Star consideration.
“He’s come a long way. He had to learn a lot about professionalism and how to work,” Vogel said. ‘He’s playing with efficiency. Winning basketball games is about confidence, and he gives us an edge, a swagger.”
George, whose basket with 10:55 to play against Memphis secured Stephenson the triple-double with his 10th assist, agrees.
“We fed off Lance all evening,” said George, who himself is averaging 24.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. “He’s been playing extremely well, making good decisions and maturing.”
Fans not only notice, they love it.
No longer booed in Bankers Life Fieldhouse as he was two years ago when entering games during scrub time, Stephenson is now a home-crowd favorite whom fans have come to appreciate because of his energy, production and successful transformation from immature disruptor to committed teammate.
All he hears these days from the Pacers faithful are cheers.
“It means a lot. I love Indiana,” said Stephenson, who received a standing ovation Monday after getting the triple-double. “Everybody is together. It just feels great this year.
“Everybody is playing as a unit, and everybody is playing smart together.”
As well as he’s played so far, Stephenson’s role could change when Granger, who has yet to play because of a strained left calf, returns to action. The former All-Star is expected to resume practicing this week, though it is unclear when he will be ready to play in a game.
It is equally unclear whether Granger, if he returns to full health, will supplant Stephenson as a starter.
Either way, Stephenson — who’s only 23 — has no plans to change his approach, which is reassuring news for the NBA’s only unbeaten team.
“I think I’m more aggressive. I’m getting everybody involved, and I’m making shots,” Stephenson said. “When I’m hitting and creating for others, we play great.”