The future of the NBA is here—and college basketball phenomenon Jake Stephens did not see it coming. The Chattanooga Mocs’ 7-footer is averaging 21.8 points (tied for sixth in the country) and 10.2 rebounds (t-12th in the country).
The grad transfer played four years with the VMI Keydets. He was named to the All-Southern Conference First Team while averaging 19.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game last season.
I interviewed Stephens, who discussed a variety of topics from his pre-game rituals, the story behind his jersey number and the one thing people may not know about playing college basketball.
Carrie Berk: How did you get started in basketball?
Jake Stephens: I have two older brothers that were ahead of me in sports. I would compete with them in the front yard, the backyard or the driveway. They got me into it.
CB: Who were some of your biggest inspirations growing up?
JS: Since I was little, it’s been LeBron [James]. I love watching Steph Curry and all the greats because I’m just a basketball fan. If there’s a game on, chances are I’m watching. I have two TVs, so every night, there are multiple games on, whether they’re mid-major, low-major, or NBA.
CB: What is the story behind your jersey number?
JS: When I was in high school, No. 33 was reserved for the hardest-working player. I won the ability to wear 33 for my sophomore, junior and senior year, and it stuck with me. When I got to VMI, 33 was retired, so I had to wear No. 34 and fell in love with it. I was going to wear it [at Chattanooga], but [Randy Brady] already wears 34. It was the perfect time to switch it up and go back to 33.
CB: What is one thing about playing college basketball that people may not know?
JS: People may not know how much we travel and we’re not home. There are weeks where we have two away games, and we’re gone from Tuesday to Saturday, sometimes even late Sunday. We’re not going by plane or jet. We’re sitting on a charter bus and driving everywhere, so the travel can definitely get to me. Sometimes, I miss my bed and my home, but it’s all for the love of the game.
CB: Did you ever anticipate ranking sixth in the country (in scoring)?
JS: No, I didn’t. It’s crazy to even think about. I have a brother that lives with me in Chattanooga, and we talk about it all the time. Who would’ve thought or dreamed of this? It’s surreal. I’m super blessed because I’ve had a lot of people help me out along the way.
CB: Who is your biggest support system throughout your journey as a basketball player?
JS: My mom and dad. I can’t even count the number of weekends they took me to tournaments. They would drive me late on a Friday night to play in the middle of nowhere, even though there were no college coaches there watching. It was just for the love of the game. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Coach [Dan] Earl, who’s down here in Chattanooga. [When he was the head coach at VMI], he took a chance on me as a freshman who had no real other choices.
CB: What made you choose Chattanooga for your final year of playing?
JS: I finished up at VMI, and there’s no graduate program there. Once I entered the portal and Coach Earl got the job here, I knew I wanted to give him a fair chance and come see the place. He recruited me from the beginning. When I got to Chattanooga and saw it, I loved the city and the people. I knew it was going to be a good fit.
CB: You recently competed against VMI. How did it feel going up against your old teammates?
JS: I loved it. I have so much love and respect for VMI and the people that are there. They’re fighters. There’s no easy game. You can’t count them out because they’re going to keep fighting until the end.
CB: What is your relationship with your current teammates like?
JS: These guys are awesome. Every team I’ve been on has had such a special connection. In 20 years, I think we’ll all invite each other to our weddings. We’re all from different backgrounds. We have different levels of basketball experience. But we all come together for one common goal. Everybody’s bought in for a whole year in working towards the same thing.
CB: Do you bond with players from opposing teams?
JS: It’s something I struggled with for my first couple of years because I just saw everybody as competition, but this year, I see guys from around the league doing big things, and I want to give them props. Once you give someone props, they’ll return it to you. I have no problem going out with the guys in the Southern Conference and saying, “Hey, congratulations. You’re doing great.” A lot of times, they say the same.
CB: Besides scoring, what is your greatest attribute as a player?
JS: Presence at the rim, shot blocking and altering shots. I may not be the highest leaper, but whenever I’m in the paint, people have to think twice while going off their layups or making post moves. There’s nothing better than a good shot block.
CB: Basketball can be a mental sport as well. What do you do before a game to keep your mental health in check?
JS: I have a whole routine. I try to do the same thing every game day. I have a shoot-around. I get to the gym early and shoot a little bit. The craziest thing I do is before I go out on the floor for warmups, I look in the mirror and hype myself up. I tell myself, “It’s going to be a really good day. You’re going to have fun out there. You’re the guy.”
CB: Considering you finished second in the Southern Conference [in scoring and rebounding last season], what did you learn about yourself as a player? What advice do you have for people who let losing affect their game?
JS: Find a routine and stick with it. You can’t let a good or bad game affect the next day because it’s in the past. One day you might be on top of the world, and the next you give up your 300, 400, 500 shots. Also, be thankful and humble because it can all be taken from you in an instant, and there’s a million other people that wish to be where you are.
CB: You had a hand injury in January that took you out for a few weeks. How did you bounce back?
JS: My family and coach were upbeat and positive and told me I was going to be fine. Realizing there’s a bigger picture out there and that it’s not always about basketball has also been helpful. Hopefully, I have a lot of basketball left in me, so missing a couple games here and there doesn’t matter in the long run. I’m just trying to stay positive and focus on the future.