Quinton Stephens came to practice last week with paint on his arms. The Georgia Tech forward had been busy painting tiny treasure chests that he fills with gifts and inspirational quotes, leaving them in surreptitious spots around campus.
“I just kind of laughed,” said guard Corey Heyward, a close friend. “That’s ‘Q.’ That’s so Q, and he’s the only person that would probably do that.”
Stephens and Heyward will be among the six Yellow Jackets seniors who will be honored Tuesday night before Tech’s game against Pitt at McCamish Pavilion. It’s a reasonably safe assumption that Stephens is the only one who interned last summer at Morgan Stanley and is on his third Polaroid camera.
Stephens, from the Marist School, will not leave Tech as the most decorated player; his career has been marked by steady improvement amidst game-to-game peaks and valleys. But he will be remembered for steadfast dedication to the team and his commitment to dancing to his own rhythm.
Tech trainer Richard Stewart has worked plenty with Stephens. Aside from the assorted bumps and bruises, Stephens has broken his nose three times and earlier in his career wore a protective face mask. Stephens, Stewart said, has always been punctual and respectful.
“He’s gone through a lot through his time here, but I’ll remember Q most for just being a team player,” Stewart said. “He’s always wanted to be whatever it took to make himself better, not only to make himself better but make his team better, too.”
Stewart also noted that Stephens is rarely seen without a pin affixed to his shirt in a seeming endless collection. Stephens’ pins include a taco, a pizza, the turtle character Squirt from the movie “Finding Nemo” and assorted quotations.
“He’s what I would consider – I don’t know if this is good or bad – he’s a typical Tech kid,” Stewart said. “He fits in well here at Georgia Tech.”
As a junior, Stephens bought a Polaroid camera at a thrift store and began capturing images from the season. Among his favorites, which are stuck to the walls of his dorm room, is a shot of him and several teammates crammed into his room after the Jackets upset Notre Dame last year.
Stephens’ treasure chests were a gift from his mother Ana, an artist. The idea to populate Tech’s campus with them came from the Tiny Doors art project, whose supporters have placed six-inch tall doors throughout Atlanta. Stephens has seen many on the Beltline, a path he likes to ride on his bike.
“They’re called treasure quests,” Stephens said. “They’re really just to impact and empower as many people as I can, whether it’s big or small. I’m just trying to leave something behind.”
Stephens has approached his basketball career with similar earnestness. An up-and-down role player in his first three seasons, one who thrilled Tech fans with a 22-point game against Georgia in the season opener of his sophomore season in 2014-15 but ended the same season with a 1-for-12 disaster against Boston College in the ACC tournament, Stephens has been diligent despite not always seeing fruit.
This season, his first with coach Josh Pastner after Brian Gregory’s firing, has been transformational. Tech’s lack of depth and talent – Stephens was the leading returning scorer at five points per game and the second leading rebounder at 3.8 per game –has stretched him in a way that might not have been possible otherwise.
As the only frontcourt player besides center Ben Lammers with significant playing experience, Stephens was made the “stretch 4” power forward and told by Pastner that his job was to average a double-double, no small assignment for a player who had recorded one double-double in his first three seasons.
But he has largely risen to the challenge, becoming a much tougher and more physical player willing to throw his body around. He hasn’t quite met Pastner’s double-double expectation, as he goes into Tuesday’s game averaging 9.7 points and 7.7 rebounds. Still, he is seventh in the ACC in rebounding and has six double-doubles, tied for fifth in the conference going into Monday’s games.
For his leadership and production, he has been all but indispensable. His willingness to mix it up in the post is all the more noteworthy considering where Stephens was as a freshman. Heyward recalled a time during their freshman season when injuries thinned the frontcourt and Gregory moved Stephens from the perimeter into the paint.
“And he hated it,” Heyward said. “Hated it. Like, Why am I down here? I want to shoot 3’s.”
With a developing game and a season that has surpassed all initial expectations, the season has been one to savor, and that’s even without the treasure chests. Stephens, who will graduate this semester with a degree in business administration, has tried to linger in moments, such as the electric atmosphere prior to tipoff of the Syracuse game. He has sought to become more engaging with other students.
“I don’t know, maybe next year, people forget who you are,” he said.
The bicycle-riding, Polaroid-taking double-double power forward whose effort and character have helped lay a foundation for Pastner’s tenure – that guy might stick.