On a team with seven seniors, five of whom start, it wouldn’t seem likely that a freshman could break into American’s rotation. But Stephen Lumpkins, a 6-foot-8 forward from Redwood City, Calif., has carved a niche for himself with the Eagles.
Lumpkins, who prefers Stephen to Steve, is the first post player off the bench for American. Though his numbers are modest – 3.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game – he has played in every game this season and developed into a dependable player around the basket. He has played 14 minutes or more in five of the Eagles’ last six games.
“It’s just a big adjustment coming from high school where I was always the best player on my team,” Lumpkins said. It’s been an adjustment “coming off the bench and contributing without scoring, finding ways to help the team win.
“Overall, it’s been positive. There’s been some ups and downs for me personally. I mean, our team’s had a great year, but I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot. The older guys really helped me.”
Sophomore guard Nick Hendra is one of the veteran players who guided Lumpkins through his first college season. Hendra said he is always talking to Lumpkins about playing hard and staying focused.
“There is a certain standard that we hold him to,” Hendra said. “He’s had a solid amount of playing time this year. At this point in time, he should understand for himself what it’s going to take to play right now.”
Big men usually take longer to adjust to the college game. Sometimes a player needs several years of seasoning before he’s ready for the rigors of this level. Because of its glut of seniors, American had the luxury of bringing Lumpkins along slowly.
In high school, “he was able to get away with a lot because of his size and length,” said assistant coach Jason Williford who works with the post players. “He was just so much bigger than everybody. What he’s had to do is learn how to play stronger.”
That’s the next big step for Lumpkins: turning his wiry frame into a chiseled mass that can’t be pushed around underneath the basket. He’s worked with the team’s strength coach, but as Williford says: “He’s got to eat and he’s got to lift like crazy all summer.”
With the departure of the seniors, American will look to Lumpkins to be more of a scorer next year. But he’ll also have to improve his team defense. In high school, Lumpkins only had to worry about the player he was guarding. Now, as the last line of defense, he has to be aware of his man as well as what else is happening on the court.
“Stephen has to learn all the intangibles that Jordan [Nichols] was able to learn over his four years,” Williford said.
Because of his modest success in his first season, Lumpkins has developed a fan following. AU students began showing up to games earlier this season wearing “Lumpkins Patch” T-shirts.
“I think it was some of the kids who live in the dorms,” he said. “I don’t know [who came up with the idea]. It’s kind of funny. It’s good people are coming out to support the team.”
March 7, 2009; 10:37 AM ET
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