Harvard-Westlake big man Stepheson rules the paint
Rebounding is an art form practiced by many players but perfected by only a select few. When it comes to snaring boards on the high school level, however, Harvard-Westlake senior Alex Stepheson is a modern-day Picasso.
Stepheson (pronounced steve-a-son), a 6-foot-10, 230-pound power forward/center, has been perfecting his rebounding skills since he was 4, when his father, Arthur, showed him what it took to be a master at cleaning the glass.
At 6-4, Arthur doesn't have the size of your prototypical rebounding stud, but his work ethic and desire more than made up for that. Arthur, who played at Westmont College and overseas and is considered a local playground legend, taught Alex the hard work that's necessary to excel in the paint.
"My dad always stressed rebounding when I was little," says Alex, who's rated the nation's No. 34 hoop recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com and is headed for the University of North Carolina next year. "He used to take me outside and teach me some box-out drills. He never took it easy on me because I was little. It made me stronger.
"He's always been telling me that you have to be the hardest worker and you have to want it more than anyone. That's what I took the most from him."
Harvard-Westlake head coach Greg Hilliard, who just finished his 21st year at the helm of the Wolverines, knew Stepheson would rule the boards back when the big man was just a freshman. Harvard-Westlake was in the Southern Section playoffs and Hilliard decided to call up Stepheson to the varsity after he'd led the freshman team to a league title.
While some might expect a freshman to just watch and learn during the postseason, Stepheson actually got some good run on a team that won the Southern Section Division IIIA title and advanced to the Division III state finals, where the Wolverines lost to Sacramento Foothill.
"He was very, very skinny," says Hilliard. "But he was a post player who could use his athleticism to get rebounds and block shots. He'd have two or three minutes in short spurts, and that's when we started to realize he'd be special on the glass."
Stepheson built on that solid postseason performance to have strong sophomore and junior campaigns. He averaged 11 points, 12 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game as a sophomore and improved to 16.9 points, 13 rebounds and 3.2 blocks during his junior season. He led the Wolverines to Southern Section titles both years.
But neither of those two seasons compare to the incredible jump Stepheson made this year, when he put up the type of numbers normally reserved for NBA Live 06 if the settings were on easy and you were using Amare Stoudemire.
Take, for example, the 31 points, 27 rebounds and four blocks he posted in a win over Chaminade or the 29 points and 31 boards he dropped in a victory over Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. He finished the year averaging 20.4 points, 17.8 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game, and his 588 total boards passed former Wolverines star and current New Jersey Nets center Jason Collins to make Stepheson the school's single-season rebounding leader.
And while Stepheson is normally considered a lunch-pail type of worker in the post, his athleticism was on full display against Notre Dame when he flushed an Amare-like dunk.
"While he was in the air, he caught a rebound that was behind his head, reached back and windmill dunked it," recalls Hilliard, who guided Harvard-Westlake to this year's Southern California Division III finals, where the Wolverines lost to Artesia. "The Notre Dame bench was even up and it was still a fairly close game. I don't think anyone will ever forget that dunk."
The dramatic increase in Stepheson's stats can be partially attributed to the fact that he asserted himself more offensively this season. He used his physical style of play to attack the basket and get to the charity stripe, and he also showed off some nice post moves and a solid mid-range jumper. On defense, he swatted shots with such regularity that it seemed like he was insulted when opponents tried to invade his territory.
And his rebounding numbers, which were already impressive, improved to mind-blowing digits thanks to what Hilliard says was an increased desire to go after everything that came off the rim. Before this year, Stepheson was simply considered a hard worker on the boards. This season, he was just plain scary.
"Rebounding is very much a mindset, and he's got it," says Hilliard. "It's been a very natural thing for him. He goes and gets ones that really aren't available to most humans. He makes rebounding a highlight film."
Stepheson also says his improved play this season is the result of numerous hours spent in the weight room. During the offseason, he worked out four days a week in the gym and constantly pushed himself, no matter how tired he got.
"After last summer, I just felt a lot stronger," says Stepheson. "I definitely realized the effects in my game and my confidence."
"He has his own little station that he goes to every single workout," adds Hilliard. "They call him 'The Beast' in there, and he is."
Following his graduation from Harvard-Westlake this spring, Stepheson will take his game to North Carolina, which he chose over UConn. At UNC, he'll be a long way from his dad, his mom, Diane, and his sisters, Naima and Erin. But the chance to learn under legendary coach Roy Williams, who led the Tar Heels to a national title in 2005, was an incredible opportunity he couldn't turn down.
"In my heart, I just wanted to go to UNC," says Stepheson. "Coach Williams is just a great coach and the academic program was just too good to pass up."
Hilliard believes the sky is the limit for Stepheson and that playing at UNC will only help his potential come to fruition.
"I think Alex is the kind of player that might even do better in the pros than he does at this level," says Hilliard. "He looks like a guy that they would covet because he'll go and get rebounds and defend. Put that with good guards, and that's a luxury. With hiswork ethic and the fact he's going to be tutored by Roy Williams and playing against top competition, he has a chance to reach that level."
And if that happens, Stepheson can thank some of those early battles with his dad for helping make him the inside force he is today.