Over the course of this college basketball season, big men such as Purdue’s Zach Edey, Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis have produced consistently to garner attention for national awards and All-American status.
However, a player that hails from West Virginia is producing at a rate that rivals the top players across the nation.
Seven-footer Jake Stephens, a Bunker Hill native and Musselman High graduate is making the most of final collegiate season at Chattanooga after playing the previous four years at VMI.
Stephens was a two-time all-Southern Conference selection for coach Dan Earl’s Keydets. After seven seasons at VMI, Earl filled the vacant head coaching position at Chattanooga last offseason.
“He told me from the beginning that they were going to keep everything the same,” Stephens said. “It was moving VMI to Chattanooga. We run the same offenses and defenses, and he said it would be beneficial to come there since I knew everything. I knew the coaches and staff, so there wouldn’t be many questions about playing time and fit in the system. All of that was figured out, which made the decision easier.”
Stephens finished his VMI career with 1,416 points and 153 blocks. He entered his name into the NCAA Transfer Portal on April 5, 2022, and five days later, he was on his way to join the Mocs.
“It was different,” Stephens noted. “I had more phone calls than I did originally. I had two schools to decide between [after high school] — Shepherd and VMI. The second time around, there were more conversations on the phone and via Zoom. Once I figured I was going into the portal, I knew I wanted to be fair and give the utmost respect to coach Earl.”
With Chattanooga and VMI both members of the Southern Conference, Stephens faced his old school back on January 7 and did not shy away, scoring a season-high 37 points in an 85-78 win.
“It was weird,” Stephens mentioned. “It was weird for the first 20 minutes, and I had to tell myself it was another game. I love that place. I am a proud alum of VMI. I will always have a special place in my heart for that place. I wouldn’t do anything different about it.”
Stephens has made quite a splash in his first and only season at Chattanooga. He’s averaging 21.8 points and 10.2 rebounds and shooting 55 percent from the field and better than 40 percent on three-pointers, of which he’s making more than two per game.
However, Stephens has not played since January 18 due to a hand injury.
According to EvanMiya.com, he is the fifth most indispensable player in all of college basketball.
“It is crazy because you do not expect to be where you are. I would have never expected this,” Stephens said. “I have always been a capable three-point shooter, which has been a staple of my game since the beginning. My biggest focal points were getting into better shape, working on my body, and becoming a better post presence. I keep giving credit to coach Earl and his staff because they have done tons of work with me. By working on different moves, I trust them to put me in the right spot.”
Stephens has used his experiences to help mentor younger teammates.
“I have always been an old soul,” Stephens said. “I was always more to myself and being that guy to keep his locker clean. All the basketball people know that after practice is over, there is an ankle tape cutter. You cut off your ankle tape, which always goes to the old guy. I am the guy who gets the tape. It has also been cool leading from this side of things by bringing the young guys along and teaching them what I know. Hopefully, not too much since I have to go against them in practice.”
Despite a short time with his new teammates, Stephens believes he’s making the most of his time at Chattanooga, which is 15-13 overall and 7-8 in league play.
“It has been interesting because you come from VMI, where you are with the basketball team every waking minute of each day,” Stephens said. “You have classes, dinner, and practice together. There was never a chemistry question. There is more freedom down here. We did get together a lot during the summer by doing different team activities. It then boils down to playing together from open gyms to practice and then games. We are still building that chemistry.”