“He has to score and rebound,” Pastner said. “If he doesn’t, it’s going to be hard for us to win.”
The numbers would bear it out. Tech is 8-2 when he scores 10 or more, including the wins over VCU, North Carolina and Clemson, and 2-4 when he doesn’t. When he gets seven or more rebounds, the Jackets are 9-2. When he’s held under seven, Tech is 1-4.
Stephens’ contributions are critical because Tech is desperate for scoring help, and Stephens is among the more capable. Further, beyond center Ben Lammers, the Jackets lack for rebounders. The 6-foot-9 Stephens is as good as they’ve got.
Tech and Stephens realized again his importance against No. 14 Louisville on Jan. 7. Stephens scored one point and took just three shots in 37 minutes of play. He had four rebounds. The Jackets put a scare in the Cardinals, but fell short 65-50, which was Tech’s second-lowest scoring output of the season.
“It’s just unacceptable,” Stephens said. “I looked at the game, I was like, that wasn’t me. I have to make sure I’m more aggressive. Honestly, it’s crazy how things work out, because maybe I needed that Louisville game to really see, you know, I really do need to be more aggressive.”
The first dunk against Clemson might have been part of his response. Stephens was in the corner, ready to spot up for a 3-pointer but saw a gap behind the Tigers’ zone defense where Heath could find him as he dribbled into the lane. Heath hit him for an uncontested dunk off a backdoor cut.
“I really just read the defense,” Stephens said. “I usually would stay out in the corner, but I’m trying to score. I just went to the basket and he found me.”
It was his first dunk in a game since his freshman season, he said. Stephens’ game, particularly in the first three seasons, has been more on the perimeter. Speaking of which, Tech needs Stephens to sharpen there, too. He is shooting 27.9 percent from 3-point range this season, the lowest season rate of his career. Entering Saturday’s games, he was the only ACC player with at least 50 3-point attempts (he has 61) shooting under 30 percent. Still, Pastner wants Stephens to fire away as long as his feet are set and he has room to shoot.
“Contested shots is not his game,” Pastner said. “Keep it simple.”
To Pastner, it’s incumbent upon Stephens to lock in on his rebounding for his offensive game to flourish. Against Ohio, he had four rebounds and six points. Against Tennessee, when he had a season-low three rebounds, he scored 15 but also turned the ball over five times. Against Louisville, a four-rebound game, he had one point and five turnovers.
“When he’s not rebounding, he’s not a good offensive player,” Pastner said. “That’s a direct correlation with him.”
Even with the lapses, Stephens is having his most productive season. Without the likes of Marcus Georges-Hunt and Adam Smith, the Jackets’ leading scorers last season, Stephens is averaging a career-high 9.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, the latter figure 10th in the ACC.
In the words of Heath, “his activity has been crazy. He’s all over the place.”
“I’m really having fun out there, honestly,” Stephens said. “Last year’s team was fun, too. We had a lot of exciting moments and some good times, but I think we’re having great times now, too. I think it’s my aggressiveness. And then just the leash that you have is let out with the team that we have now.”
With a surprising 2-2 start to the ACC season, Tech has a chance to build on it Sunday. The Wolfpack are among the more efficient offensive teams in the league, but are average on defense and susceptible to teams that can attack the offensive glass. The Jackets would benefit from Stephens going hard to rebound and playing at his aggressive best. It’s not just Pastner who’s telling him that. So is the guy who witnessed his first dunk.
“He’s definitely saying I have to be more aggressive, as well,” Stephens said of his father, who played collegiately and had a long international career. “Just everyone’s saying that. Even myself.”