The biggest change Erik Stevenson made to his game this summer didn’t happen on a basketball court, but in the weight room.
After playing as heavy as 213 pounds for Wichita State last season, the 6-foot-3 guard dedicated this offseason to transforming his body. He dieted better, lifted weights more consistently and the results show: he’s dropped 15 pounds, and he says he is leaner, more cut and has added six inches to his vertical entering his sophomore season.
“I didn’t feel very comfortable (at 213), so I had to get back down to 198 and basically that changed my whole summer,” Stevenson said. “It’s crazy because everybody thinks athleticism is up and down, dunking on people. But I’ve noticed more of a difference moving side to side, the way my body feels. I feel lighter. I feel more explosive. It really changed my whole game.”
Stevenson had an up-and-down freshman campaign for the Shockers. He started 11 games, played 21.9 minutes per game and averaged 6.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He showed the willingness to step up and take the big shot — and delivered his fair share of momentum-swinging jumpers — but his shooting numbers also left much to be desired: 32.5% from the field, 27.8% on three-pointers and 52.3% at the rim.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall has remarked before how Stevenson shoots with the type of stroke, rotation and follow-through that makes you believe ever shot is going in, much like Conner Frankamp and Landry Shamet.
In order to earn the same kind of sharpshooting reputation as Frankamp and Shamet, Stevenson knows his shooting percentages need to start matching his picture-perfect form.
“It was just a mental game really,” Stevenson said. “I was putting in the time and the reps, but some days you’re frustrated with it because you’re putting in all of this hard work and effort and it’s just not getting there as fast as you want it to be.
“Seeing it develop and seeing it consistently go in during practice now is just a sigh of relief. Last year I was supposed to come in and make shots. I showed signs, but the numbers don’t lie. If I can keep this up, then I’ll be doing what I should have been doing last year.”
When you pull back the curtains on Stevenson’s outside shots from last season, there’s a clear path for shooting a higher percentage as a sophomore.
For starters, Stevenson made just 26.5% (9 of 34) of his unguarded catch-and-shoot threes last season, per Synergy. That percentage is likely to rise this season with more confidence and a season of Division I experience under his belt.
Due to WSU’s inexperience, it took more bail-out shots (attempts with less than four seconds on the shot clock) last season than during any season the past decade. Too often the ball was kicked out to Stevenson late in the shot clock, putting pressure on a 19-year-old freshman to create his own look.
Predictably, it didn’t go well for any of WSU’s freshmen. Stevenson, Jamarius Burton and Dexter Dennis combined to shoot 16.9% (12 of 71) on bail-out shots, per Synergy. Stevenson took 25 of those bail-out attempts, the ninth-highest total in a season by a Shocker the past decade and tied with Fred VanVleet (2012-13) for the most attempted by a true freshman in a season.
WSU has more experience and more creators (welcome Tyson Etienne, Grant Sherfield and Noah Fernandes) surrounding Stevenson this season, so he shouldn’t be stuck with as many low-percentage looks this time around.
But the shot Stevenson says his new cut-up frame has unlocked the most is his pull-up jumper. Per Synergy, Stevenson shot 34.8% on pull-up twos and 20% on pull-up threes last season — leaving plenty of room for growth.
“I could get to my spot, but how fast can I get the ball off once I get there?” Stevenson said. “Most of the time you’re not going to be sitting there wide open in the AAC, no doubt. So shooting with a hand in your face. Just a lot of reps so shooting with a hand in your face becomes natural, it’s just you and the rim, you’re not really feeling anything. It’s just a normal jump shot.”
Stevenson looked most comfortable catching on the wing, using a ball screen from a big and dribbling into a three-pointer. He was able to establish a rhythm with his dribbles, which allowed him to elevate quicker and shoot over the recovering defender easier.
But there were also times when Stevenson made his move off the dribble to create separation and he couldn’t release the shot fast enough.
After experiencing the length and athleticism of AAC defenders for a season, Stevenson knew how to practice smarter this summer.
It was evident on some of Stevenson’s jumpers he was unsure of himself and his body control wasn’t great. He would dribble in and then float sideways on the attempt, which increased the difficulty.
A stronger core should allow Stevenson to beat his defender to his spot, elevate and get his shot off before his shooting window is closed down.
The improved athleticism should also make Stevenson a stronger defender. Opponents tried to pick on him on the defensive end last season to varying degrees of success. Against quicker guards, Stevenson struggled to stay in front, which in turn collapsed WSU’s defense. But he showed he’s a high-IQ player and those smarts made Stevenson a plus rebounder and help defender.
Smarts will only take you so far on defense, however. To stay on the court for Marshall, you have to get in a stance, buckle down and keep the ball in front of you.
WSU doesn’t need Stevenson to be its best perimeter defender. What it does need is for Stevenson to level up as a defender, which in turn will make the team defense even stronger. It’s the area where Stevenson hopes to make his biggest breakthrough.
“Even though I lost about 15 pounds, I kept my strength,” Stevenson said. “I’m still hitting the same numbers in the weight room. But 198 now looks a lot different than the 194 coming in freshman year. I kept the same strength and got lighter on my feet and that just changes everything really.”