This is the second in a six-part series on the origins of Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
The transition from suburban high school star to small college freshman was as jarring for Brad Stevens as the leap from big-time college freshman to the NBA is for many of his players now.
Stevens joined a DePauw program that had reached the Division III NCAA tournament eight of the previous 12 seasons, and suddenly his basketball IQ wasn’t enough to close the athleticism gap. The green light he had in high school turned to yellow, and the star lost some of his shine.
“In high school, I was probably more of a jack-of-all trades and played a lot of different positions,” Stevens told Parquet Post. “But once I got to college, not truly being great at one or two things probably hurt my ability to help the team more. I wasn’t fast enough to be a point guard, wasn’t a good enough shooter to play the two, and struggled to defend either spot well.”
Stevens has said he wouldn’t have recruited himself to a Division I program, either.
“I just think he was like a lot of high school guys,” countered Bill Fenlon, still DePauw’s head coach. “When you’re scoring 27 points a game in high school, you can take a lot of shots, and in a lot of cases you don’t have great defenders on you. And in college, at any level, all the players are really good, and you just can’t take as many bad shots. Shot selection was one of the things he had to work on, and he did work on it. And playmaking, putting the ball in danger, is something all guys have to work on. Those are all things that he got better at as time went on.”
So, Stevens reached into his toolkit, fine-tuning his way to a decent freshman campaign.
“He’s learned a ton about basketball … that he probably thought he knew in high school, but he didn’t,” said Brandon Monk, Stevens’ Zionsville High teammate who went on to attend conference rival Hanover College. “His talent was so strong, and that took him to another place, and then I think that’s where the aspects — call it his mental toughness, how he learns, how he stays focused — really probably kicked in. All of a sudden, he couldn’t just win on talent alone.”
Stevens appeared in all 26 games as a DePauw freshman, averaging 8.2 points in 15.6 minutes and shooting 39.1 percent on almost three 3-point attempts per game. He scored a season-high 24 points three games into his college career, earning his first of three starts a game later.
“My first impression of Brad was as a basketball player he was extremely gifted, and it was clear that he was talented,” said Josh Burch, who entered DePauw in the same class as Stevens and served as captain alongside him as seniors. “He was immediately pushing for playing time.”
Dubbed a gunslinger and risk-taker, Stevens said, “I laugh when described as those two things by my teammates — nice of them not to say how slow I was or how much I got burned on D.”
Well, they couldn’t resist, really.
“I don’t think that was his best deal,” said DePauw teammate Mike Howland, now an assistant coach at South Carolina’s Division I Winthrop University. “I don’t remember him being a stopper. I can tell you that much. I think he was a little bit more offensive-minded back as a player.”
The irony that the Celtics own the NBA’s best defensive rating is not lost on anyone. “I don’t think defense was really the focal point of Brad’s game,” said Burch. “You look at teams he coached at Butler and the Celtics, and you see what great discipline and team defense they play. It’s a perfect example: If you were to go back and watch a game film, you’d be like, ‘Wow, why was I in that position?’ And yet, if you look at the Celtics, they’re just so disciplined and they have guys who are just such great team defenders that that’s got to come from somewhere.”
It comes, his teammates have said, from an insatiable curiosity to learn.
“You would have to ask him, but I would bet he would say he didn’t play a whole hell of a lot of defense in high school,” said Monk. “He’s turned into a hell of a coach and a hell of a defensive mind, but in high school I don’t think he even understood helpside defense.”
That understanding wouldn’t come for some time during his playing career, if it ever did. Stevens’ minutes fluctuated for the remainder of his freshman season at DePauw — a campaign that ended with a 17-9 record in the conference semifinals, where Stevens finished with three points on five shots and two turnovers to one assist. The shine might have needed some buffing, but what Stevens never lost, even in his search for himself, was his confidence.
“Maybe an even bigger issue,” said Stevens, “was that I initially wasn’t self-aware enough as a player — and as a result took my fair share of risks. I’m sure Coach Fenlon would tell you that some of my decisions that I made as a player didn’t lead him to believe that I would coach someday. He reminds me of that sometimes, and now we get a good laugh out of it. But now that I’ve been in his shoes, I feel bad because he was probably losing sleep over it.”
There is that authenticity, layered over his steadfast assurance, that is a Stevens hallmark. “His character has an incredibly amount of humility and empathy,” said Monk. Even in the midst of a transformational college campaign, a year when so many of us lose track of where we’ve been, Stevens took time from a freshman season that shocked his system to write a note to Monk, then a high school senior, encouraging him after Zionsville’s latest sectional playoff defeat.
“It’s just the little things like that I’m sure he still does,” said Monk. “I know he takes the people who are in his circle very personally. He does a lot of outreach things that probably people don’t know a lot about. He has a ton of humility and empathy. From a leadership standpoint, though, I think those go a long way, because it means he can associate with players, coaches and different people. He’s not coming in showing you he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s listening first. He’s always seeking to understand. He’s curious about your journey from a very authentic and sincere place. You could see that stuff then with Brad.”
It was the earliest sign of the relationship-sustaining that serves Stevens so well now. And if you ever confuse sentimentality with weakness, let him be a reminder to hold your judgment.
Asked if there was a way to capitalize on Stevens’ vulnerabilities, Burch said, “I don’t know. I haven’t been able to crack that code yet. If you interview someone who has, I’d be curious to know the answer. He’s pretty calm and cool about things. I think that can be looked at in a number of different ways, but he’s seemed to have figured out how to handle success and failure and how to move forward. I haven’t been able to figure out a way to get him flustered.”
Rookie no more, Brad Stevens entered the next phase of his career, loaded for bear.
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