On Stephen’s ‘athleticism’

Most people who talk about “athleticism” are talking, I think, about running, jumping, dunking -- the kind of athleticism anybody can see.

But to be athletic, to be an athlete, or at least a successful athlete, really comes down to this: Can you get to where you want to get when you want to get there?



1. One thing we learned from watching him in his time at Davidson is that he’s uncommonly good at stopping and starting. Which sounds ridiculous … but: Straight speed is one thing, and it’s not unimportant, but the ability to hesitate, then accelerate -- to change directions faster than the guy trying to keep up with you -- is almost certainly more important.

Where does that come from?

Well, last summer for the book I talked to a couple trainers who’ve worked with him over the last few years, and here’s what Charlotte’s Chip Sigmon said: “All sports is bending and extending, and he’s very good at those two things. He bends. He extends.”

Is that athleticism?

2. That ability, though, doesn’t come just from physical ability.

I wrote about this in the book and also in the Stephen story I did last fall for Charlotte magazine.


Stephen was able to take the information given to him and correct mistakes almost immediately. It wasn’t that he never made mistakes. He made a lot of them. He just usually didn’t make any of them a second time. McKillop has been coaching for three and a half decades, and he says he has never had a player like that. It was as if Stephen listened to what he was told, painted a picture of the movements in his head, then channeled those movements onto the court, at full speed, the very next play.

Jay Bilas once told me Stephen is one of the smartest players he’s ever seen. Not college players. Not recent players. All players ever.

Something else I heard from another trainer who’s worked with Stephen: “I never had to explain anything twice to him. He always got it.”

Is that athleticism?

3. Last summer up in Davidson I sat in the stands one day at basketball camp with former Davidson player Ben Ebong. He described Stephen’s game as “unorthodox” in that he goes “against the rhythms of a normal player.” He doesn’t just dribble, dribble, for instance -- he drops the ball from different spots, and at different times, the point being that his defender is always off balance.

Ebong, a big college football guy, a Nebraska fan, brought up an old Florida State runner named Amp Lee. He wasn’t the fastest guy, or the biggest guy, but somehow nobody could ever get a clean hit on him, Ebong said.

Stephen, he said, is like Amp Lee.

“He’s like a running back who never gets tackled hard.”

Is that athleticism?

Look. I don’t know if Stephen will be good in the NBA, or great, or just okay, or not okay at all. I’m not enough of a basketball expert to be able to say for sure. Even the people who are can’t either.

But I think he’ll be fine on the “athleticism” front -- whether people choose to call it that or not.

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