D.J. Stephens prepared for another otherworldly dunk in his pregame warm-up against the Atlanta Hawks on Oct. 7. Timing an alley-oop distributed by a Memphis teammate, the Grizzlies shooting guard initially began his ascension to the basket from the three-point arc. With ruthless intentions, Stephens, already in motion, let the ball bounce on the hardwood, grasped it and with a vertical that warps reality, slammed the ball through the basket. Head above the rim slightly before the emphatic finish, jaws being recovered after dropping onto the floor, Stephens’ dunk contest-like performance will be etched in NBA 2016 preseason lore as stunning.
Stephens bends the parameters of physics, redefines the elite dunker label among NBA players and has been a source of pay-per-view entertainment throughout the preseason. Catching infamy for glitzy slam dunks isn’t anything new to the athletically gifted Stephens.
“It feels pretty good,” Stephens told Ridiculous Upside. “It’s happened a couple of times in the past, whether it was in college or last year. Towards the end of my D-League season, I had a couple of dunks that were on SportsCenter, but for me to be putting on this kind of a show or for my dunks to be out there at least at the highest level it’s a pretty good feeling.”
To stand out and receive national attention in the NBA’s Developmental League is uncommon, but Stephens’ highlight-reel plays last year illustrate his obvious athleticism that’s become fully revealed in October. Memphis, evidently, took a flier on the University of Memphis product, signing the high flyer to a two-year deal, $2.0 million deal in the offseason that’s $35,000 guaranteed during the first year.
Stephens’ rare breed of athleticism aids other aspects of his game; it’s not just utilized when in the air.
“A lot of times if I drive or something I can just elevate,” Stephens said. “Whether it’s a dunk or a skyhook, they can’t block it or contest it. It helps me tremendously. On my jump shot … I use that ability on my jump shot as well and I jump high and guys can’t really block it.”
Stephens didn’t initially prioritize lifting off the ground when attempting jumpers. Throughout college, Stephens struggled from deep and refrained from taking threes, instead opting for slashing to the basket. Willing to fire from the perimeter has optimized Stephens’ offensive game. There is sound reasoning as to why the shooting guard sought to become increasingly versatile.
Stephens has bloomed into a competent three-point marksman due to his trainer Tim Peete’s advice.
“He used to shoot in just on his toes,” Peete said. “He jumps so high naturally and he needed to know that that was an advantage in the NBA. It makes it easier for him. He has great strength. He elevates on his jump shot and it has rhythm on it.”
The guidance has evidently worked. While Stephens is just 3-of-11 from deep through four preseason games, he’s giving the Grizzlies’ point guards an outlet hovering around the arc on offense. Stephens isn’t timid as a shooter and that’s a definite breakthrough. It also lets head coach David Fizdale formulate additional plays offensively for the two-guard.
Stephens admires Memphis’ first-year head coach, whose personable traits have left a major imprint on the 25-year old.
“It’s a great feeling, just having a guy that truly, truly cares about you on the court and off the court as well,” Stephens said. “You can tell that he really cares about your well-being and not just you as a basketball player, but your entire life. The way he supports you, he gives you that confidence and freedom on the floor to just be a basketball player.”
Getting the starting nod against the Hawks, Stephens’ willingness to reward Fizdale’s faith played into his 13-point, eight-rebound, four-steal performance. Stephens’ playing time has remained consistent and his 26 minutes against Houston Saturday were a career high in the NBA.
The guard’s shooting took a relative hit against the Rockets (5-of-14 on field goals, 1-of-4 from deep), but his verticality remained impressive.
In the Grizzlies’ altered, quicker style of play, Stephens could be a key cog, regardless of whether his efficiency from deep holds throughout the season. Tied for 26th in pace of play last season, Memphis, gauging their newfound tempo, could be willing to simply “push it and go” when cleaning boards.
Stephens’ athleticism is unparalleled on the Grizzlies’ roster. With an agile Mike Conley Jr. directing traffic and blitzing defenses in transition or in more rapid half court sets, Stephens becomes a definite benefactor. In the starting lineup or coming off the bench in the second unit, Stephens’ deft athleticism adds a new wrinkle in Memphis’ offense.
Another aspect of his physical profile aiding the Grizzlies is his length. The 6-foot-5, 188-pound two-guard packs a 7-foot wingspan that plays on both ends of the floor.
“Having a 7-foot wingspan, it helps me defensively because I’m able to get hands in the passing lanes or block and contests shots and use my length a lot to help me on the defensive end,” Stephens said.
With the Grizzlies naturally having to play more defensive possessions, pushing the pace on offense, Stephens could become a Tony Allen-lite pest against opposing wings. Paired with his lateral quickness, Stephens’ length could help him evolve into a plus defender at the NBA level.
It’s also a key facet of his positioning, able to handle multiple positions. While Stephens is theoretically a two-guard, he has the wingspan and athleticism to defend forwards. Handling stretch fours isn’t going to be a roadblock in Stephens’ progression as a defender.
“I don’t feel that I’ll have an issue guarding a 4 or being switched onto a 4,” Stephens said. “I’ve always been in disadvantages [matching up onto players]. In college, we switched everything. A lot of times, even in the D-League last year, I guarded a lot of bigger guys. I’m used to battling guys and playing hard.”
Stephens’ length allows him to hedge favorably in the pick-and-roll, either hard hedging and sticking onto his man or switching onto a big. It’s beneficial, with guys like Zach Randolph and Brandon Wright, two behemoths who’d generally not be comfortable closing out on stretch fours on the perimeter.
Pick-and-roll offense and defense is an aspect of his game that Stephens deliberately attempted to fine tune in the offseason with Peete. Stephens was entering the 2016-17 NBA season as a top-shelf athlete with developing basketball ability. He sacrificed time in the dunking and flashiness realm and worked on situational defense, among other things.
“He was trying to get to the NBA and I was always trying to be honest with him,” Peete said. “It told him, ‘You’re too athletic not to work on the other things. We know you can dunk, work on something else this week. You’re athleticism isn’t going anywhere.’ He just trusted me.”
Offensively, Stephens is using his length to progressively finish over bigs, handle errant lobs on alley-oop attempts and adeptly convert put-back dunks. That 7-foot wingspan comes into play on every dunk attempt.
Stephens is aggressive offensively, similar to his favorite player growing up: teammate Vince Carter.
“For me to be on the same team as him now is surreal in a way,” Stephens said. “With him being freakishly athletic and me being freakishly athletic, I’ve been compared to him a lot of times. He’s been helping me a lot on his own. In practices or in games, he comes to talk to me and give me tips and pointers.”
Stephens joined a roster that he idolized throughout college. Stephens relishes the chance to play alongside Conley, Marc Gasol and Randolph, previously taking in games at FedExForum as a student at Memphis University from the 2009-10 to 2012-13 seasons.
Averaging 10.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 1.2 SPG, while shooting a solid 43.8 percent from the floor and at one point having a higher PER than Kevin Durant this preseason, it’s the optimal time for Stephens to latch onto an NBA roster, possibly Memphis’. Not only is Stephens an ideal fit in the Grizzlies’ rotation, he’s arguably the most versatile two-guard on the roster, able to slash, shoot with range, and contain wings on defense.
His athleticism has been consistently highlighted, but it’s a selling point for Stephens on an ever-developing résumé. One littered with facets of his game that could be appealing for Memphis.