#TGW: Tech’s Big Toe
Quinton Stephens turning on his game, toughness and leadership
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
- It’s been said “Still waters run deep.”
Senior forward Quinton Stephens is showing the depth his waters run when it comes to passion and commitment.
Georgia Tech Coach Josh Pastner admits he can’t get Stephens to even take a break in practice, while in games, he’s averaged 37.5 minutes over his last four games -- wins over Clemson and at NC State and hard-fought losses at Virginia Tech and Virginia. His 33.7 minutes are a career-best, more than 13 minutes over his previous best (20.1 last season). His 19 starts this season are seven fewer than his first three seasons combined.
“It’s hard to have him out right now,” said Pastner. “He’s playing at such a production level with effort plays it is hard to have him out of the game.”
Stephens actually earned “Ironman” status, playing all 40 minutes in a game (missing no more than 30 seconds of action), on Jan. 15 at NC State, the first Jacket to go the distance since Marcus Georges-Hunt did so last Feb. 20 against Notre Dame. He did it again three days later at Virginia Tech, making him the first Jacket to do so in back-to-back games since Matt Harpring in 1997 (vs. Virginia on Jan. 22, and NC State three days later).
“I didn’t really notice. I was just playing. Thank goodness for TV timeouts,” Stephens said with a laugh. “You get lost in the game.
“I didn’t know anything about [being an Ironman] at the time, until after the game,” he added. “To hear those names is pretty cool, and it’s good that we battled and came out with the win in one of those games. I’m just leaving it all on the court. I’m not necessarily totally in control of my minutes. So I think we just need to put ourselves in the best chance of winning.”
Pastner, who is in control of minutes, couldn’t help but recognize how Stephens’ presence enhanced Tech’s chance of winning, as over those four games Stephens scored 15.5 points, grabbed 10.0 rebounds and dished out 3.3 assists. He shot 41.7 percent (20-for-48) from the floor, 44.8 (13-for-29) from three. He came into the 2016-17 season shooting 36.0 percent, 31.0 from three.
Stephens has a simple explanation for his increase in offensive production.
“Continued work with shots,” he said. “Another great thing we’re doing as a team is we’re focusing more on skill work during our practices. Throughout our team, we’ve noticed that the extra skill work is coming up in games. But really, it’s just being aggressive in my eyes. I don’t think I’ve changed anything except the mentality of going out and scoring, leaving it all on the court.
“I think it helps with your coaches letting you know, ‘We need you to score the ball,’ ‘We need you to shoot,’” he added. “I believe that if I get shots up more than likely I’m going to hit a good amount. That’s just a confidence thing. I feel good.”
He’s been very aggressive and very good on the boards, as he brings back-to-back 13-rebound games into Wednesday night’s tilt against No. 6 Florida State at McCamish Pavilion (tip-off is at 7 p.m.).
“It’s really just fighting for rebounds,” said Stephens, whose previous ACC high was nine in this year’s ACC opener, Dec. 31 against North Carolina (his career-high was 12, vs. Tulane on Nov. 26, 2016 and Wofford on Dec. 22). “I see the shot go up and I’m thinking ‘rebound.’ I’m not really sure if they’re double-teaming Ben on box-outs or anything like that. I see shot, and I just get in position to rebound.”
Stephens credits talking to his dad, Robert, nicknamed “Sweeper,” a three-time honorable mention All-American and Drexel University’s all-time leading rebounder (1,316), and former teammate Charles Mitchell as influences in toughening his mental game.
“I took a lot of good things from Charles Mitchell, just as far as the mindset last year that he had, because he was a great rebounder, and then my father -- he had some records for rebounding at Drexel University,” he said. “He just let me know, ‘You’ve got to position yourself first, then you have to go out and go grab it.’ But really, it’s just a mentality.”
Pastner points to a team-bonding exercise called “The Program” as a major turning point in Stephens’ mentality.
It was where Stephens learned that sometimes leadership by example comes by being made an example and rebounding from it.
As Pastner recalled, Stephens was more placid and easy-going, a guy who worked on his three-point shooting primarily by standing in the corner and putting up threes. At one practice Stephens decided a toe injury was too painful to continue to play through.
Pastner admitted he was a little surprised.
A week later with the team, at The Program, a military/mental exercise, the active Marine and former Navy SEAL who ran the program, as Pastner recalled, wasn’t sympathetic when Stephens asked out because of his toe injury.
The Marine recounted the story of how an IED exploded while he and a buddy were walking along a road in Afghanistan. His buddy lost both his legs in the blast, yet in his final moments, picked up his weapon that he’d dropped and returned fire.
“So don’t you tell me about your big toe,” were the Marines’ words to Stephens.
“Something clicked with Quinton,” Pastner said. “He did ‘The Program,’ and from that point on he has never missed a practice. Every single practice he comes in, he’s the hardest worker. He flies on the floor, he has bruises all over, but he will not take a possession off in practice. He won’t sit out. I’ve tried to get him to sit out in practice. He won’t. I’ve said, ‘You need a rest.’ He won’t do it.
“He is playing so hard, with such energy and such determination,” Pastner added. “He’s come so far and such a long way. He’s one of the most improved players in the league just in terms of where he was to where he is now and I’m really, really proud of him.”
Stephens will proudly lead the Jackets onto the McCamish Pavilion floor to face the sixth-ranked Seminoles on Wednesday night. It’s one of only seven home games he has left in his career, and he’s determined not to miss a minute -- literally.
“Every game that we play in the ACC is a special game, especially the senior aspect of it -- the last time I’m playing Florida State at home,” he said. “I think all of the guys are excited. Every team can beat any other team in the ACC. You just have to come ready to play.”
There’s no doubt Quinton Stephens will be.