Jumpin’ D.J. Stephens a raw but intriguing NBA prospect

In a late February game between Conference USA opponents, Southern Miss forward Dwayne Davis is faced with a decision. Davis is a couple of steps beyond the 3-point line and, for a second at least, is wide open. But there’s a problem barreling his way.

That would be Memphis forward D.J. Stephens, who closes out in the blink of an eye and leaves Davis, already into his shooting motion, just one option. Davis half pump fakes and half travels as Stephens, who can’t stop his forward momentum, leaves his feet and jumps over the 6-foot-5 Davis’ head. Fans in the FedEx Forum gasp.

Later in the game, Stephens sneaks behind the defense and runs straight to the rim, where he catches a perfectly timed alley oop from Shaq Goodwin and slams the ball home. Slow motion replay of the dunk shows that, at the top of his leap, Stephens’ hands are above the square on the backboard.

Again, Memphis fans gasp. And they’ve been watching Stephens play for four years. Imagine seeing him for the first time. Stephens leads the nation in inducing slack-jawed amazement, and not just because of how high he jumps. What’s amazing about Stephens is how quickly he gets off the floor.

“From an athletically gifted standpoint, I’ve never seen an athlete like him,” said Memphis assistant coach Damon Stoudamire. “I’ve played against a lot of guys in the NBA, current and former, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

That comments begs a question: Can a 6-5 power forward who battles asthma, wasn’t a consistent starter until his senior season and averages 7.3 points get drafted into the NBA?

“He’s such a high-level athlete, so quick off the floor, that he changes the game,” said Memphis coach Josh Pastner. “He actually affects and changes the game. I’m telling you, he’s a pro prospect.”

Of course, Pastner and Stoudamire are supposed to advocate for their players. So the question of whether Stephens could play at the next level was posed to a neutral observer, an NBA scout who offered a nod of his head and an answer as brief as it was resolute.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

Why is that scout convinced Stephens will end up in the NBA? He’s no doubt seen plenty of Stephens’ momentum-altering plays. YouTube is crawling with clips. Be sure and check out Stephens’ one-handed cup/tip dunk against Xavier, or a soaring two-hander off an in-bounds play against VCU.

That latter dunk came in November, but VCU assistant coach Will Wade hasn’t forgotten about Stephens.

“I’ve kind of kept up with Memphis since we played them,” Wade said. “Stephens is amazing. He’s a quick jumper, which is a unique ability. He can get off his feet really, really quickly, and he can double jump very, very quickly. And he’s good at doing that in tight spaces. You can’t teach it. You either have it or you don’t, and very few people have it. He seems to have two or three ‘wow’ plays every game.”

Jumping ability alone won’t get Stephens to the league. Which is why Pastner has encouraged him to take his game away from the rim. The fact Stephens is shooting 37 percent from 3-point range this season is a testament to his work ethic. He credits growing up with an athletic father with helping him learn new disciplines.

“He played basketball, but also a lot of other different sports,” Stephens said. “Growing up I went golfing with my dad, bowling … we did it all. I have a lot of other talents people may not know.”

Again, YouTube provides some proof of that—a clip of him, not on a court but in a bowling alley, rolling a strike by throwing the ball between his legs.

“I’ve done that a bunch of times,” Stephens. “You just have to put the ball on the floor on a certain spot, put a little spin on it and it’s gonna be a strike.”

Partly because Memphis plays in a non-power conference and partly because he’s rarely started before this season, Stephens isn’t widely known outside of his home base, NBA scouts and anyone who’s stumbled onto his dunks on the web. But that doesn’t bother him. He’s used to being overlooked.

As a high school player in Killeen, Tex., Stephens received only a handful of Division I scholarship offers heading into his senior season. He wasn’t excited about any of them, so he decided to hold off until the spring, hoping a better offer would come along. When that didn’t happen, Stephens started calling back the schools that had previously shown interest.

“By that time, all the schools that had offered me said they had given the scholarship away,” Stephens said. “I ended up not having a school to go to.”

Stephens turned to his AAU coach, Max Ivany, for help.

“He was prepared to go to a junior college, but it was obvious he didn’t need to do that,” Ivany said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of Division I coaches. I started sending out emails, just to see if there was a school out that still had a scholarship available.”

One of those emails went to Pastner, who had just taken over at Memphis and was scrambling to resurrect a recruiting class gutted after former coach John Calipari left for Kentucky. Pastner had an extra scholarship because a player he had signed from France blew out his knee and decided to stay home.

“This is August,” Pastner said. “The email from Max said I’ve got this kid who’s a great athlete, but no one wants him. We just needed players, so I took him sight unseen.”

Pastner’s hopes of landing a late recruiting steal were quickly dashed.

“He came the first week, and I was like, ‘big mistake,’ ” Pastner said. “He was awful.”

Stephens has the same recollection.

“When I got here, I was behind in every aspect of the game,” Stephens said. “My conditioning was poor, my ball handling was poor and my shot was poor. It wasn’t up to the collegiate level because nobody had ever worked with me on those aspects of the game. I played the post in high school.”

But as preseason practiced progressed, Pastner began to see what Ivany was talking about. “His athleticism was unreal,” Pastner said.

Stephens played in 33 games as a freshman and even started three times. But he averaged just 7.9 minutes. His playing time didn’t increase appreciably until this season, in large part because doctors finally figured out why he sometimes had troubling breathing on court. Asthma was only part of the problem. After surgery to removed his tonsils and adenoids and repair a deviated septum, Stephens has been able to play longer stretches.

This season, he’s started 20 times and is averaging 22.9 minutes. Stephens’ meager scoring average doesn’t begin to measure his worth. But his .678 shooting percentage, his Conference USA-leading 69 blocked shots and his average of 6.7 rebounds per game speak volumes.

“I’m just telling you, this kid is worthy of being drafted,” said Stoudamire a former NBA rookie of the year who played in the league for 14 seasons. “He plays out of position for us, and obviously he’ll have to play guard in the NBA. There are nuances of the game he doesn’t have yet. But if a team drafts him, lets him work on his game … he’ll just be a beast.”

Stephens, who has grown accustomed to being overlooked, is eager for that chance and vows not to waste it if it comes along.

“I’m somebody that’s always flown under the radar,” he said. “Even this year, I’m still flying under the radar. People didn’t think I could do what I’m doing now. I’m sure some people don’t think I can play in the NBA. But to get that chance, to prove to the world, especially to kids, that no matter your situation, if you work hard, you can do anything … that would be amazing.”