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April 28, 2014

Scratching the surface

As his freshman season wore on and his body wore down, the light came on for Kendall Stephens.

Despite feeling the effects of an off-season lost to senior-year shoulder surgery, then battling through a recurring groin issue - on top off all the challenges every freshman faces - particularly at the Big Ten level, Stephens was a better, more well-rounded player at the end of his freshman season than he was the beginning.

He ended the season trending upward, now maybe poised to make a leap forward and not just a step.

"I think I'm capable of a lot," Stephens said after a recent workout. "I think I can lead the team in many ways and be a big part of changing this program around. I'm confident I have the ability to do that and I'm willing to do that. It's just a matter of time."

He showed flashes.

Shooting has always been the wing's defining characteristic and will be until the day he's done playing.

But through the course of his freshman year, he was making more plays as opposed to shots; scoring in more ways; rebounding better and making more effort plays; and showing modest improvement on defense.

"He was trying to make his impact on our team through shooting and shooting alone," Coach Matt Painter said, referring to the start of the season. "He's a very good shooter and he has a chance to be a very good player. As the season progressed he did some more things off the bounce. He shot his pull-up or got to the basket. He put more energy into the defensive end, got some loose balls and rebounds. That's what we need him to do. We need Kendall Stephens to be a really good player, not just a really good shooter.

"His decision-making will improve and adding strength will give him some more confidence. That's our goal for him, to be a really good player."

The first step for Stephens is to get his body right.

That's a two-fold process for the 6-foot-6 sophomore-to-be.

First, he must get healthy. He was held out of contact work during individual workouts this semester to give his groin issue a chance to heal.

Once he's back to full strength, strength and conditioning become his emphasis.

He missed the entire spring last year and much of the summer after undergoing the shoulder surgery that cut short his senior season at St. Charles East High School in Chicagoland.

This summer will be his first healthy one since the one that followed his junior year in high school.

Physical strength might complement whatever mental strength experience has given Stephens after he played 32 games as a rookie, starting half of them, and played more than 20 minutes per game.

"It opened my eyes and put my mind at ease," Stephens said, "because I was more confident and knew what to expect."

He had his moments.

In a loss to Michigan State in Mackey Arena, Stephens scored a team-high 19 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three-point territory. It was one of the seven times during Big Ten play that he scored in double-figures.

For the season, Stephens averaged eight points and shot 37 percent from three-point range, a team-best among those with a notable number of attempts. In a year in which Purdue played in all of one postseason game in the Big Ten Tournament, Stephens' 64 threes fell just short of a school freshman record.

He made big shots, too, like his late three-point play in Purdue's win at West Virginia or his clutch banked-in jump shot that gave the Boilermakers an outside chance in the final minutes of a loss to Oklahoma State. He buried a long three at Minnesota in the game's final seconds that set Purdue up for a chance at the end.

The freshman was sometimes quick with his trigger, though, firing at will, on occasion to his team's detriment, over-aggressiveness Purdue hopes will be ironed out through experience.

On a team that has two upperclassmen on scholarship at the moment, leadership might be needed from younger players, a role Stephens aspires to fill.

"That's kind of what my role's becoming right now, now that I have a year under my belt," he said. "I think I had a somewhat-productive year and people on the team might respect what I have to say. With that, I have a lot of responsibility on my shoulders."

Whether it's tangible contributions or intangibles ones, Stephens is clearly poised to be an absolutely crucial player for Purdue next season, as has already been communicated to him, as if it needed to be.

"The coaches have talked to me about what they see in me for the future and what they need from me next year," he said. "It's on me in terms of where I'm going to be and whether I'm going to get myself right or not (physically) come August.

"Coach Painter told me he expects me to be a bigger leader and bigger part of the team. I definitely expect to get more minutes than I did last year, so with that I need to be a better decision-maker on the court and be able to do more. I have to put the time in and prepare myself for (the role) I'm going to be put into."

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