This is the fourth in a six-part series on the origins of Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
By the time Brad Stevens reached his senior year at DePauw University, the NBA dream had gone the same way it does for so many high school superstars. This was it, the final season of an impressive basketball career by any measure, and he was riding high as one of three four-year players on the roster, a co-captain alongside classmate and close friend Josh Burch.
And even before it started, Stevens lost his starting job to a hotshot freshman, Mike Howland.
“We brought him off the bench as a senior,” said DePauw coach Bill Fenlon. “He didn’t like it, like a lot of guys wouldn’t like it, and it took awhile for him to adjust to it. And he had to make a conscious decision as to whether he was going to make a commitment to be a great teammate.”
Fenlon presented Stevens with a choice — ego or team. And Stevens chose as you’d expect.
“I’m not sure that he would’ve been mature enough as a sophomore,” said Brandon Monk, Stevens’ high school teammate and a lifelong friend. “When you’re a 19-year-old, it’s very different from when you’re a 22-year-old, and you’re staring at life a little differently, but I think that team over self mentality has carried over a lot. I would say early on in high school, he got away with talent and he got away with IQ. He still had that grit, that other stuff behind it, and I think he figured out how to hit the accelerator on those things to take him to another level.”
Stevens came off the bench for the majority of his senior year, averaging 5.1 points on (a career-high) 48.2 percent shooting in (a career-low) 15.2 minutes per game. More importantly, he embraced his new role, serving as a guide for Howland, another turnover-prone gunslinger.
“He really helped mentor me as a freshman in a somewhat difficult situation for him, I believe, because I was playing a lot of minutes and he wasn’t playing as much as the season went along,” said Howland, who averaged 33.4 minutes as a freshman. “That’s always tricky for a senior, but he was always really, really good to me, and he was always a really good teammate.
“It’s never an easy situation to not be getting the playing time that you necessarily want, and I know that he learned a lot through that experience of his senior year, not playing as much.”
The benefits to the team were twofold. In the immediate, Howland showed great promise, and DePauw — starting a pair of freshman and three sophomores — showed great improvement, winning their final five games after an 11-11 start to finish better than .500 for the first time since Stevens’ freshman season. In the long-term, Howland developed into a Division III All-American, leading DePauw to a top-five national ranking and within a few possessions of the Final Four.
“[Stevens] did eventually adjust to that role,” said Fenlon, “and how he handled all that and how his teammates handled all that had a lot to do with resetting the program and getting us in a position where we had a real legitimate chance to win the national championship when that group of freshmen when he was a senior became seniors. His attitude helped with all that.”
The benefits for Stevens were even greater. Nothing impacted his perspective on basketball the way losing the started job he thought he deserved did. Choosing team over ego was the culmination of a career that began in the driveway, saw his rise to prep stardom and rode the collegiate wave of rookie freshman, sophomore starter and junior sixth man to senior reserve.
“You hear him talking about that all the time now,” said Fenlon, who now seeks advice from Stevens. “He actually had to live through some of that stuff as a younger guy, and I think that it helped him. It’s easy when everything always goes your way, right? I think he’s a guy who can relate to everyone on his team and every role that each of those guys has, because he smelled all of that as a high school guy and a college guy, and I think viscerally he just gets all of that.”
“Between my high school and college careers, I lived every role,” Stevens told Parquet Post. “And the role that I learned the most from was when I didn’t play much my senior year. It taught me to truly analyze what it meant to be on a team, and to appreciate the contributions of one through 15. Until you’re at the end of the bench, I’m not sure you truly appreciate that. There are no players who I respect more than the players who play inconsistent minutes, yet perform their roles consistently when called upon. That’s so impressive, and very hard to do.”
Think Evan Turner, embracing a backup ball-handling role. Or Isaiah Thomas, transforming from Sixth Man of the Year contender to MVP candidate. Or Gerald Green, changing a first-round series as a spot starter. Think Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Shane Larkin, Semi Ojeleye, all of whom embody that Stevens mantra of staying prepared in the face of adversity.
“He could on a firsthand level related to guys one through 12 on that bench, because he had been in each of those places,” said Burch. “He had been the heralded recruit, he had been the guy who started as a freshman, he had been the guy who had been demoted, he had been the guy who as a senior had decreased playing time, so he could relate to almost every one of those guys on the team was going through. And because of that, he is able to 1) handle them on a coach-to-player level and 2) get the most out of them, because he was able to articulate what their roles could be and where they could contribute based on his experiences prior to that.
“I think without a doubt his ability to relate to all players has carried through to the NBA. If you read or listen to anyone who’s played for him, that still rings true. Part of it is obviously the style and X’s and O’s, but much, much more than that is how he relates to people and how he is able to find a way for them to feel like they’re contributing or to know they’re contributing. I think it’s fair to say a lot of that was shaped from what he went through in his four years at DePauw.”
Of course, nobody, not even Stevens, realized how big an influence the experience of being benched would have on the future Celtics coach. After a semester-long internship, midway through that senior season, when he was often only playing a handful of minutes off the bench, Stevens accepted a position at Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company based in Indianapolis, the sort of job you settle into for awhile. His post-playing career was set. Or at least they all thought.
“If I saw this coming, I’d be doing a lot better in the stock market, if I had that sort of vision,” finished Fenlon. “That said, here’s what I did see coming: I saw a really smart guy who was incredibly studious about everything that he did, and I’m looking at that guy at the end of his college career, and I’m thinking this guy is going to be great at whatever — and when I say great, I mean really great — at whatever he decides to do. That part of it has worked out.”
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