Plans for Kendall Stephens to attend Purdue University were years in the making, but his actual arrival in West Lafayette, Ind., seems to have come at just the right moment for the Boilermakers’ men’s basketball team.
Stephens committed to Purdue when he was a sophomore at St. Charles East. His father, Everette, an assistant coach with the Saints, scored more than 1,000 points for the Boilermakers during the 1980s.
The younger Stephens also has aunts and uncles living in the West Lafayette area, but he said his decision to attend Purdue was not a foregone conclusion. He also entertained offers from DePaul and many other Big Ten schools, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Northwestern.
“I think it was the coaching staff,” he said when asked what tipped the scales in favor of Purdue. “It was the location, being close to home. … I was just looking at the style of basketball I could play.”
That style of basketball included a smooth shooting stroke that can be effective from beyond the 3-point line, an area of weakness for most of the Boilermakers who returned from last year’s team that finished 16-18 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten. Although four starters are among the returning players, they combined for just 53 3-pointers last season and shot less than 30 percent from beyond the arc.
It’s not surprising, then, that Stephens immediately fit into the plans of eighth-year coach Matt Painter. He has started 10 of 15 games and leads the team with 28 made 3-pointers. He’s shooting 35 percent from long distance.
“I’m just playing to my strength.” said Stephens, who added that he’s “working on other aspects of my game as the season goes on and every day in practice.”
The 6-foot-6 guard was in the starting lineup for most of the nonconference schedule, but has come off the bench since a disappointing performance in a 76-70 loss to in-state rival Butler, when he scored two points and misfired on all three of his 3-point attempts.
“I knew there were going to be ups and downs my freshman year, and I’ve had some so far,” Stephens said. “I still have a lot to prove. I’m just coming in every game, every practice, staying focused.”
Stephens is averaging seven points and two rebounds a game. Whether in the starting lineup or coming off the bench, he still figures prominently in Purdue’s game plans and he’s seen no drop-off in minutes.
“I’m going to be out there if I’m playing hard and doing what the coaches ask,” he said.
Stephens scored six points and grabbed two rebounds in 16 minutes in Sunday’s 82-79 loss at Minnesota. He hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key in the final 10 seconds to pull the Boilermakers to within 3 and had a chance to force overtime with a buzzer-beating shot from half-court, but the attempt fell short.
Purdue also lost its first league game of the season to No. 3 Ohio State, 78-69.
“It’s tough in the Big Ten, especially the couple games we had, we just beat ourselves,” Stephens said. “I think we have a very promising team and we’re going to turn it around.”
He said the team still has high goals, which include a return to the NCAA tournament. The Boilermakers were invited in each of Painter’s first six seasons at the helm of the program, but were not selected last year.
Stephens is also itching for a return to postseason play after missing most of his senior year of high school with a torn labrum. He spent six months rehabbing and said it feels fine now.
“I haven’t had any problems so far,” he said.
He also hasn’t had any problems with college classes, saying he received all A’s and B’s the first semester. Perhaps his biggest adjustment to college life has been getting used to the practice sessions, which he said are longer and harder than those in high school. In fact, he spends most of his free time resting, just giving his body a chance to recuperate.
Stephens got a much-needed break over Christmas, when he spent four days back in St. Charles.
“It was nice to come home for a little bit,” he said.
Stephens will be back at his new home-away-from-home Sunday in Mackey Arena when Purdue hosts Nebraska in another Big Ten contest.
• Dennis D. Jacobs writes the weekly On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. If you have a column idea, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.