If only basketball had a statistic for applause. The volume (quantity?) of cheers generated. Think about it. It just might be one of the most bankable statistics a player could have. It's one thing to negotiate a contract around your points per game or your efficiency on the offensive glass and quite another to convince an employer that you actually put fans in the seats. And better yet, you make those fans happy they purchased the seats.
When or if Dalenta Jameral Stephens gets to negotiate a pro contract, he'll be doing it without conventional basketball numbers. He might begin by jumping to touch the ceiling of his host's office (with his elbow). But the most convincing case D.J. Stephens could make for himself as a valuable basketball player would be some audio to enhance the video highlights from his senior season as a Memphis Tiger.
"He brings life and energy to the arena," says Stephens' teammate of three years, Antonio Barton. "You can hear it when [the p.a. announcer] calls his name for the starting lineup. And he deserves it. He comes out every day, putting his body on the line. He grinds, gets rebounds, dives on the floor. A guy like that, he's special."
Before tipoff this Saturday at FedExForum, Ferrakohn Hall, Stan Simpson, and Charles Holt will rightfully be honored as part of the program's annual Senior Day. But you can bet on two things: the last senior to be introduced will be D.J. Stephens and the loudest cheers of the day will be for the departing native of Killeen, Texas. About the only thing over which D.J. Stephens could not leap this winter would be the height of his popularity.
"He'll go down as one of the great, beloved Tigers, when it's all said and done," says Tiger coach Josh Pastner. "He'll be up there with Elliot Perry, Andre Turner, and Keith Lee. I mean that." Pastner has an affection for Stephens that will remain singular, no matter where Stephens goes, no matter how long the coach carries a clipboard. For Stephens will always be the first player to spend four years in a rotation coached by Pastner. In terms of player/coach marriages, Stephens/Pastner belongs to posterity.
Pastner has described Stephens as "a zero-star recruit" coming out of Harker Heights High School in 2009. (Stephens actually averaged 16.3 points and 7.8 rebounds as a senior and was named all-district.) Not until Pastner received an email from Stephens' AAU coach did the player even register on the rookie coach's radar.
"We needed athleticism," Pastner says today. "I knew he could jump, that he could play above the rim. But he couldn't chew gum and dribble at the same time."
Stephens actually had four scholarship offers before his senior year in high school (including North Texas and Western Kentucky), but he neglected to pursue any of them. By graduation day, each offer had been pulled. As the summer of 2009 unfolded, Stephens received some phone calls from coaches (after a mass email sent by that AAU coach, Max Ivany) but only one that truly connected. "Once I got the call from Coach Pastner, I just knew," Stephens says. "I had that gut feeling. There was a reason for me getting that call, and I was supposed to come here. He had to talk it over with his staff, but then he called me a couple of days later and offered me a scholarship." Having not made a formal visit to the U of M campus, D.J. Stephens became a Memphis Tiger. The youngest of six siblings, Stephens felt that moving some distance from his Texas home would be valuable to his growth, both as a basketball player and a man.
As a freshman for the Tigers, Stephens averaged 7.9 minutes a game, backing up the likes of Wesley Witherspoon and Roburt Sallie for an NIT-bound team. His minutes picked up as a sophomore (11.2) then dipped his junior season (8.3) as Stephens battled tendinitis in his knees. Before the 2012-13 season began, Stephens had surgery to repair a deviated septum (imagine playing basketball with constricted breathing) and had his tonsils removed. Then at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas — the Tigers' first test of Stephens' senior season — he separated his left shoulder, an injury that has curtailed his practice time ever since. "The reason I don't practice him," Pastner says, "is he plays so hard in games. He gets banged up. I want to preserve him."
The sight of D.J. Stephens rising above the other nine players on the court has become common at FedExForum. And so has the collective intake of breath from more than 16,000 fans when Stephens falls flat to the surface from heights most of us only see atop a ladder. Stephens was not quite six feet tall as a junior in high school when he rose to the challenge of a teammate and dunked a basketball for the first time. Since then, with added height, his view from above the rim has grown more and more familiar.
"The first time I dunked a ball, I jumped a lot higher than I expected to," Stephens says. "After that, I was trying to dunk every chance I got. Since I got to college, I've grown some. Since I do jump higher than most people, it's kinda cool to still be going up when they've reached their peak. But it can be a blessing and curse. If you jump high, you have a longer way to come down if you get bumped. You deal with some wear and tear. But it makes me feel blessed."
Stephens' jumping ability allows him to wait until a shot is released before elevating for a block attempt, a rare skill on the basketball court. And what does Stephens find more gratifying, a rim-shaking dunk or a crowd-stirring block of an opponent's shot? He's got a quick blend of an answer: "A block that leads to a dunk at the other end."
It's one thing to be blessed with leaping ability and quite another to apply the trick in the context of a basketball game. Stephens' impact this season has exceeded the oohs and ahhs Tiger fans deliver with each of his dunks (now more than 100 in his career). Consider Stephens' performance against Tulsa on February 2nd: 15 points (a career high), four slam dunks, four blocked shots, nine rebounds, and a three-pointer. Those all came in the first half. The Golden Hurricane was reduced to a guttural gasp in 20 minutes and almost entirely under the heel of a player Pastner considered redshirting before this season.
Says junior center Tarik Black, "We haven't seen what we have with D.J. before. It's not been classified. I'm not surprised at all. He's been capable of things before, but this year is his time. A lot of players grow up in a college system, freshman year to senior year. It's in the later years when they show their spurt ... their time to shine. He's taking advantage of his moment."
Stephens says he would need a mechanical counter to tabulate the number of autographs he signs each week. And what are the qualities Tiger fans tell him they admire most? "People are going to love you, just because you're a Tiger," Stephens says. "But by the time you're a senior, people have gotten to know you. People love my jumping ability, but the number-one thing they say is how personable I am. Down to earth. That I'm a sweet person. You can affect people in so many different ways. Just saying hello can change someone's life. I try to be as friendly as possible."
Stephens is on schedule to graduate in May and would love to hear his name called in June's NBA draft. If you have doubts, don't tell Stephens and don't tell his coach. "I believe people would pay to watch him play," Pastner says. "He's continued to get better, and he has a wonderful, team-first attitude. He plays to win. Recruiting rankings can't open up someone's insides. They can't show heart. Or the mind."
The best part about Senior Day, of course, is that we see players become Tigers for life. D.J. Stephens will be a welcome member of the family. "Looking back on things, it seems like a blur," Stephens says. "For me to be able to come from where I started and be where I am today ... it's a blessing."
Tigers by the Numbers
Like it or not, college basketball is all about numbers this time of year. As Selection Sunday (March 17th) for the NCAA tournament looms, teams — particularly those on the proverbial bubble — are being dissected by data devotees. Rankings and records, standings and statistics ... it's a numbers game until the field of 68 is finally announced.
Remember the star power Dajuan Wagner brought the 2001-02 Tigers? Lot of good it did his team. John Calipari's second Memphis squad was 22-9 on Selection Sunday with a one-and-done wonder on its roster. They got a one-way ticket to the NIT (which they proceeded to win).
Here's a look at some numbers that will impact where (or if) the Tigers are ticketed for the Big Dance. (Last year, a 26-8 record — with both regular-season and tournament titles in C-USA — got them an eight seed.)
AP: 25 • Coaches: 20
RealTimeRPI: 19 (just behind Kansas State, just ahead of Ohio State) CBSSports.com: 19
Strength of Schedule: 108 (just behind Fordham and Rhode Island)
Nonconference: 46 Conference USA ranking*: 11 (just behind the Missouri Valley and West Coast)
*League is 0-21 vs. top-25 teams
Overall ranking: 37
NCSOS*: .528 (156th of 347 teams)
* a Pythagorean winning percentage (of nonconference opponents) based on opponents' strengths and adjusted for home/road/neutral conditions.
Bracketology (Projected Seed)
Jerry Palm, CBSSports.com:9 (would face Missouri in East regional)
Bracket Matrix*: 7.69
* average seed among 96 brackets