2015 Purdue Basketball preview: Kendall Stephens
[Click here to see the rest of the 2015 player preview posts.] 2014-2015 Season Reflection
Kendall Stephens came in to the 2013-2014 season as the most heralded part of Matt Painter’s recruiting class (the others – Basil Smotherman and Bryson Scott). After a fairly successful freshman year, where lower shooting percentages were explained by Stephens being the only possible shooting weapon for defenses to hone in on, expectations going in to last year were fairly high.
Unfortunately, most people consider Stephens’ sophomore year a bit of a disappointment. Kendall was hit with a few injuries here and there, most prominently a severely sprained ankle and a finger we’ll discuss later. Most had him penned into the starting lineup, alongside Ray Davis and AJ Hammons, and looked to that triumvirate (with the possible addition of Vince Edwards) for stability going forward. There also wasn’t much doubt that he would be a leader in minutes-played for this team.
And…what was that finger, you ask? Oh god that finger. VIEWERS BEWARE, DON’T LOOK AT THIS IF YOU’VE EATEN ANYTHING WITHIN THE LAST HALF HOUR.
Oh sweet lord. If that were me, I would have told the trainers to amputate. There’s no point going forward after that. But Stephens was laughing, because he’s incredible, and apparently has never felt pain in his life.
That, coupled with the early season ankle injury, made it a wonder that he was even playing significant minutes at all. Stephens' injuries apparently led to him being removed from the starting lineup for three games in December (IPFW, Arkansas State, and Vandy), and then reinserted for the Notre Dame fiasco. But…the minutes split (24 per game in the nonconference, 21 during Big Ten play) points to a little more. Stephens got in Painter’s doghouse due to a confluence of injury issues and a lack of consistent effort on both ends of the floor. Kendall’s role reduced into one off the bench, which gave Dakota Mathias a chance to shine earlier than many expected.
But on January 17th, Kendall put up what could have been the individual performance of the year. The Kid posted 22 points, shot 6/12 from three point range, grabbed 4 rebounds and 3 assists, and hit the game-tying three (see the GIF of the Year section below), in a game at Penn State. Purdue lost against Wisconsin and Maryland (both ranked), and were inching closer and closer to .500. A loss at Penn State, coupled with the loss that came right after at Illinois, would have killed any tournament hopes still going within the Boilers’ locker room. I don’t even think Purdue would have pulled off that 9-3 stretch to end Big Ten play and salvage the season without The Kid’s massive game against Penn State.
With all the talk of a “regression” year, most people overlook the strides Stephens did actually make. He saw a pretty significant increase in shooting percentage his sophomore year (.384, up from .370 his freshman year), which probably resulted from an increase in spacing. He’s a legitimate three point threat, and for his first year and a half he had the ultimate green light from Coach Painter to shoot from anywhere (as long as it’s in rhythm within the offense). People were annoyed at this, but the shots were falling so I didn’t see it as an issue.
What was an issue: his two-point field goal percentage decreased from .308 to .267. Completely anecdotally (I wish I had access to shot location data), it felt like a lot of these attempts resulted from step-ins after a three-point pump fake. Aah, the dreaded long two. Instead of trusting his ball-handling at taking the ball all the way to the hoop, Stephens would force a contested shot over smaller opponents. He’s a very good shooter, but not that great.
Bottom line: Kendall is smart enough to thrive, and has the ability to play at the next level, but health and mental fortitude haven’t been on his side. He desperately needs to stay engaged throughout the game on both ends, actively covering his man on defense and purposefully moving on offense. Stephens and AJ Hammons honestly had similar problems through their first two years; Kendall is clearly talented and has the raw ability to be a starting-caliber player in the Big Ten without much effort (which is saying a lot), but if he’s ever truly engaged in he could be a star.
This engagement problem didn’t really manifest in much of a “punishment” during his freshman year, mostly due to Painter’s lack of options. His sophomore year saw a minutes split with Dakota Mathias, but Kendall still had a big role. Stephens won’t have that luxury this year, however…he has two players behind him chomping at his heels for minutes, and the arrival of Swanigan guarantees to bump Stephens out of the starting lineup. Davis and Edwards have already established their places clearly ahead of Stephens in the rotation, leaving a three-way competition for the go-to shooter off the bench.
There’s absolutely no room for Stephens to be complacent like last year…with Mathias and incoming freshman Ryan Cline showing really great things this summer, Stephens has to be a monster from the start to keep his minutes up. But, like Hammons after Isaac Haas created some job insecurity, I think this will only push Stephens to new, unseen heights.
Undisputed Strength: S-H-O-O-T-I-N-G. He’s also got an NBA frame, 6’6” with a 6’10”-plus wingspan to bother wings on the defensive end.
Biggest Weakness: Everyone says defensive instincts, but I’ll go broader – it’s staying mentally alert throughout the game.
GIF/Vine/moving picture of the year:
Not even close. Purdue down by three, Octeus misses his free throw, AJ spins free and tips the rebound to Stephens, and The Kid races behind the arc and drills a three to tie the game up. Purdue would win in overtime, and eventually turn the season around. Without this shot, and Stephens’ performance during this game, I think the season takes a massive tailspin.
THE KID or KID STEPHENS are Kendall’s only acceptable nicknames. Boiled Sports will continue to take credit for this successful endeavor. Lord knows we needed to get something right.
CLICK HERE to see projections for everyone on the team.
Methods: Projected each player’s stats per 40 minutes (loosely based on increases/decreases from last year), scaled to my projected minutes per game.
Assumptions: Nobody (read: Cline and Smotherman) redshirts, and the team totals are as stated. Parenthetical numbers are where those team totals would have ranked in 2014-2015. Remember, last year’s team was 10 players deep, this year’s team could be 13 players deep.
I know, I know. I’ve already heard from a lot of you, upset at the projections I made in regards to Davis and Mathias’ offensive production, and Cline’s minutes. Well…that’s because I see a big year coming from The Kid.
Now, you have to put that in context. Swanigan’s arrival put this 20 mpg wing on the bench, which means one of the shooters is getting a majority of the minutes while the other competes with Cline for the second wing off the bench. I think Kendall’s three-point shooting remains upwards of 39%, and he improves his two-point shooting to around 35-38% range (up from 27%). That represents an absolutely massive increase in scoring efficiency for Stephens, which he’ll need to increase his scoring output in fewer minutes (as I have projected).
Rebounds, assists, and turnovers all go down because Kendall won’t need to be even a part-time playmaker this year. The point guards, plus Edwards, Swanigan, and Mathias should take that role, leaving Stephens to slide in where he’s most comfortable – nailing open jumpers and putting points on the board.
Unsolicited BS Advice for 2015-2016:
Oh Kendall. If there’s anyone Purdue twitter loves to obsess over, it’s you…and you’ve given them a number of reasons. Between your floating attention on defense and your trigger-happiness out of rhythm on offense, the calls for Dakota Mathias (and now Ryan Cline) have reached a fever pitch. But your talent has a place to shine on this team…taking plays off can eliminate many of the chances you’ll get from this coaching staff, but simple attentiveness on defense could have you on the court for long stretches of games and in every crunch-time lineup during the year.
Also, cut those long twos completely out of your offensive diet. If you’re open, don’t hesitate behind the arc. If you create space with a pump fake, attack! If you’ve worked on your ball-handling during the offseason, you’ll easily be able to draw fouls and sink a Reggie-like 90% from the stripe. This year will be ripe for opportunism, and you have all the tools to take advantage.
I think it’s pretty much a guarantee that you will stay a full four years at Purdue, and a season like the one projected above would set you up to break out on the national stage as a starter on a high-profile team during your senior year. Focus on excelling in those role-defining skills, and next year all of the scoring load placed on Hammons will be split between you and Biggie. Get em, Kid.
BEST/WORST: Remember, this is the top and bottom of the spectrum. The most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle. (Worst case scenarios come with a complimentary side of ACL tears.)
Best case: As the classic breakout candidate, the junior Stephens becomes a versatile scorer and sharpshooting three point shooter. Stephens uses his scoring ability to become the third leading scorer on the team (behind AJ and Vince), and becomes the piece that puts this Purdue team over the top. His efficiency becomes comparable to many first-round talents, but his lack of scoring volume has a few scouts skeptic. With a late first round grade, Stephens comes back and reaches a second straight Final Four, starting with a Edwards/Swanigan/Haas lineup. He peaks out shooting 48% from inside the arc, 45% outside, and 88% from the line, becoming the most efficient scoring machine in the country.
The smile he gave during that disgusting pinky injury reveals a tougher side of Stephens, who thrives on contact inside and never suffers another nagging injury again. In 2017, Stephens is drafted just outside of the lottery by the Memphis Grizzlies, who love his toughness and desperately need his shooting. They Grit and Grind their way deep into the playoffs with Stephens joining Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, and help close the book on the Gasol era in Memphis with a championship run by beating the Clippers, Spurs, and Warriors on the way to a finals series with Cleveland. The Kid, as he’s known on Beale Street, hit more daggers than could be counted, and becomes a Joe Johnson-lite NBA player (except with, you know, feelings and emotions and stuff).
Worst case: Kendall struggles to stay involved amid a deep lineup, and fails to stay completely engaged during the season. When he got time, Stephens loses his defender often, hoists lazy contested shots, and forces Coach Painter to remove the redshirt from Ryan Cline this season. Cline gets a ton of minutes, and becomes an injury/turnover-free version of Kendall Stephens during his freshman year. Cline and Mathias alternate for Stephens’ final two years, reducing his role to the bench behind two young wings who are much further along than anyone could expect.
As is the case with most worst-case scenarios, Kendall sees that he’ll be buried during his senior year, and uses the graduate-transfer rule to immediately play closer to home: for Chis Collins and the Northwestern Wildcats. He immediately becomes the focal point on offense, giving him a freedom that Purdue’s roster would have never allowed. Northwestern makes a Sweet 16 run in their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance behind Stephens’ heroics, and Collins helps Northwestern take its first major step in becoming the “Duke of the Midwest”…which is a nightmare for Purdue recruiting going forward.