Lance Stephenson begins new season as sixth man

When the Pacers begin training camp Tuesday morning, their first of several two-a-days, Lance Stephenson will not playing with the first group.

He’s one of just six players back from last year’s roster, but the coaching staff believes the team will be best with Lance being a spark off the bench each game as the sixth man.

“Yes, I do [see him as the sixth man] and I’ve talk to him about that,” head coach Nate McMillan said last week. “I think that that can be a role that I hope he can develop and establish. I think a sixth man is a guy who is like a starter. He can be a guy that can do a lot of things with that second group, with his ability to handle the ball and score the ball. He passes, he’s a very unselfish player.”

Stephenson is beginning his eighth year in the league. The Pacers, specifically Larry Bird, took the chance and used the 40th overall selection in the 2010 draft. Stephenson paired alongside four-time All-Star Paul George made for a very good (and memorable) draft class.

When Stephenson left Indy for Charlotte four years later, enamored by Michael Jordan, he lost who he was. Teams didn’t understand him and they didn’t use him in ways that allow him to be Lance. He needs the ball, he needs to be let loose, and he needs the proper support group.

He has all that in Indiana.

Returning to the franchise last spring on a three-year deal — the final year is a team option — Stephenson is comfortable back home. So much so that he bought a house in Zionsville over the summer. (He kept his first house, on the east side, for more than a year after he was traded. Too bad he sold it two years too soon.)

The 27-year-old said the right things on Tuesday when asked about being the sixth man … but still, you wonder if it’ll change once games are played and he’s announced in pre-game introductions. He is a confident player and every night they suit up, he believes he’s the best player on the court.

“Oh, definitely,” he said in response to whether he willingly embraces this new role. “When you’re the sixth man, you already know what you’re expecting when you get on that floor. I came in playing the sixth man so I embrace well and I can’t wait.”

Stephenson averaged 7.2 points, 4.2 assists, and 4.0 rebounds per game last season over the final six regular season games. Once the playoffs rolled around, he was in the sixth man role. However, with as many as nine new faces on the roster, many expected Stephenson to be inserted back into the starting lineup – where he made noise for All-Star consideration last time around (during the 2013-14 season).

“I love him at that position,” Pacers President Kevin Pritchard said. “What it really reminds me of is [San Antonio’s Manu] Ginobili a long time ago. Because what happens is you can’t get everybody the opportunity to score and make plays in the first five minutes. So when you come off a bench and you have somebody that can make plays … Lance is a willing passer. We have to put shooters out there with him but he’s a willing passer and I like that role for him.

“Lance can get a little crazy at times, sometimes you got to slow him down but I like that. I like that he brings us unique experience to the games and he gets fired up and he gets his teammates fired up.”

It was interesting to hear coach McMillan specifically note to both team sponsors at last week’s golf outing and to the media that things will be different for Stephenson without his draft-class mate, Paul George.

“That’s something that he’ll have to show,” McMillan said. “I expect the maturity to show in his game. There’s been several teams that have given up on him and he gets another opportunity to come back to Indiana where he’s had a lot of success to play. He still has something to prove. We know what he’s capable of doing and we’re looking forward to Lance showing that out on the floor, showing growth, showing his improvement, and becoming even better.”

Stephenson, who got No. 1 back over the offseason, changed his diet, dropped about 12 pounds and is down to 228 with a few more to go. Like all of us, he recognizes how the game is changing and how athleticism and endurance wins out.

To start, McMillan has 10 players in the rotation. And the second unit of Corey Joseph, Stephenson, Glenn Robinson III, Domantas Sabonis, and Al Jefferson should be more productive than last year’s group of Rodney Stuckey, Monta Ellis, and Lavoy Allen.

[Pacers Depth Chart]

Analytics tell the team that they need at least three playmakers on the court at all times, and need to score 110 points to win.

“I think this will be a group that will respect wherever they play, whether they are starting or coming off the bench,” McMillan continued. “And we want to create good competition because we feel that we have two [or] three at every position that could be starters.

But…

“One or two of our guys guys must have All-Star seasons for us to have success.”

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