High School Sports

One year in at Wichita State, former Timberline basketball star has shown a lot of growth

Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall and guard Erik Stevenson celebrate on the sidelines in the final minute of their win over UCF at Koch Arena on Wednesday.
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall and guard Erik Stevenson celebrate on the sidelines in the final minute of their win over UCF at Koch Arena on Wednesday. The Wichita Eagle

Former Timberline High School basketball star Erik Stevenson returned to Washington briefly between Wichita State’s semesters earlier this month but it wasn’t all down time.

Stevenson found courts around the South Sound and Seattle, spending hours solidifying a skill set that was already impressive during his four seasons with the Blazers.

Last week, finding a competitive workout meant waking up before sunrise, and driving through early-morning traffic from his home in Lacey to Rainier Beach, the Seattle high school that has produced several NBA stars.

He was joined by a handful of local high school standouts, including Rainier Beach’s MarJon Beauchamp and Kendall Munson. There they worked through more than an hour of ball handling and shooting drills with skills trainer Chris Hyppa and Nate Robinson, the former Vikings and UW standout who has played with eight NBA franchises.

“It’s a different workout, different flow, which is nice not always doing the same thing,” Stevenson said. “It’s good to get up here and run.”

Stevenson worked quietly and efficiently through the drills, warming up for what was coming next. Enough local talent — notably Tramaine Isabell, who recently wrapped up an NCAA tournament run with Saint Louis; Khalil Shabazz, now at San Francisco after earning GNAC Freshman of the Year honors with Central Washington in 2018; and former Rogers, WSU and NFL player Brandon Gibson — showed up for a scrimmage.

They played for more than hour, and Stevenson flashed the offensive and defensive growth he displayed at Wichita State his freshman season.

“It was definitely a lot,” Stevenson said of his first Division I season. “But, yeah, it was everything I thought it would be. It was probably a little more, to be honest, when it comes to being coached and critiqued and all that.

“It’s good, though. It made me a better player, and stronger mentally. … The mental side of the game is definitely more than I was expecting. It broke me down and built me back up. I’m better for it.”

Stevenson was a Class 3A all-state pick by The News Tribune, The Seattle Times and the Associated Press his senior year in high school, and scored 1,861 career points. He broke Michael Porter Jr.’s state tournament record with 118 points in four games (29.5 average) to lead Timberline to a fourth-place finish. For much of his four seasons with the Blazers, Stevenson was expected to score, and score often.

That changed when he arrived in Kansas to join coach Gregg Marshall’s program. Stevenson said it was challenging to adjust to, but he embraced coming off the bench for the majority of the season. He started some, but performed better when he could take the first few minutes of the game to observe, and figure out where he could make an impact.

“For basically three years in a row (at Timberline), if they needed a bucket, they were giving it to me,” Stevenson said. “And then I went to college, and I had to take a step back. ‘OK, I’m like the third or fourth option.’

“At one point, I think I was third on the team in points and attempts, so I was the third option off the bench. I like that role. Coming off the bench I was able to see the game, get a feel for it mentally. It helped me play better, but it was definitely a challenge.”

Stevenson finished the season fifth on the team in scoring average (6.5 points) and minutes (21.9), fourth in rebounds (3.7) and assists (78), and second in steals. But, much of what he offered the Shockers, doesn’t register in a box score.

“The one thing he excelled at more than anything was defense,” said Timberline coach Allen Thomas, who caught up with Stevenson recently and watched many of his games this season.

“Hustling, stepping over to take charges, diving on the ground for a loose ball. I think he realized what his niche was on this team that season. It was kind of a humbling experience at the beginning, but once he got his feet wet, he showed a few splashes of what Wichita State fans are probably going to expect next season.”

Stevenson said he learned to make quicker decisions — but admits there is still plenty to improve on — and gained a better understanding of where on the court he needs to be in different situations.

“I actually enjoyed doing that stuff, because it gave me a year off of having the pressure on my shoulders to score the big bucket,” Stevenson said. “I probably had nine or 10 good offensive games, but I struggled for a lot of the year.

“I enjoyed coming in and trying to be a good on-ball defender, good off-ball defender, rebounder, communicator. I felt as the season progressed, my role as a communicator and leader grew tremendously, especially in the NIT run. … It opened my eyes to what I have to do, and what I have to be.”

There were growing pains along the way with learning how to play in Marshall’s system, but Stevenson said he’s better for it.

“I think it’s the culture they have,” Thomas said. “He had to grow up fast. He was put in some situations where he had to mature. He went from starting some games, to having to come off the bench, to having a limited role, and he had to grow up fast.

“I think all of that has made him tougher. The difference in his game now that I notice right away is there’s really no nonsense. He doesn’t settle. He really attacks the rim aggressively. … It’s almost like the more contact he sees, the better it is for him. He’s just way more explosive getting to the basket than ever.”

As Stevenson experienced personal growth as a player, the Shockers steadily improved as the season progressed, turning what was, at times, a frustrating season, into a semifinals appearance in the NIT.

That postseason experience will help Stevenson, and the two other freshman who had significant playing time — Dexter Dennis and Jamarius Burton — get a jump start on their sophomore years, with Wichita State losing 42.7 percent of its scoring with seniors Markis McDuffie (18.2 points) and Samajae Haynes-Jones (11.9) departing.

“I think there were a lot of moments this year when we showed how close we were to being an actual tournament team,” Stevenson said. “We had some good wins, and we played some really good teams really tough.

“But, that NIT run … helped us because we got March playing time. Playing time in March is a lot different than playing time in November. It really helped us, and it’s only going to make us better for this upcoming season and the following season.”

Stevenson picked up his car while he was home, and drove it back to the Midwest this week, to get back to work. He’s still aiming to reach the NBA someday, and has a more realistic sense of what that will take following his freshman season.

“Coming from high school, I was the guy on the team,” Stevenson said. “It was good for me to come in and be humbled, and take a step back, and look in the mirror and then be like, ‘Alright, this is what I’ve got to do to get better, and better my chances of going on.’ ”

Thomas recognizes the changes, how Stevenson has matured mentally, and he has made strides on the basketball court. But, this much remains constant — Thomas is confident Stevenson’s work ethic will never falter.

“He’s wired differently,” Thomas said. “He wants to be great.”

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.