by Howie Stalwick
It's official: Blake Stepp is the greatest basketball player in Gonzaga history. How can anyone be so certain? Because John Stockton, the living legend of GU basketball, says so himself.
"I talked to John, and John thought [Stepp] was the best," Gonzaga coach Mark Few confirms. "Coming from John, I think that's about as good as it gets."
Stockton, who played at Gonzaga in the early 1980s, retired last season as the NBA's all-time leader in assists and steals. It remains to be seen if Stepp ever plays a minute in the NBA, but as a college player, Stepp even gets the nod over Stockton from Dan Fitzgerald, Stockton's first coach at Gonzaga and one of Stockton's greatest admirers.
The college careers of Stepp and Stockton have many similarities. Both were point guards who scored and passed with equal aplomb; both were honorable mention Associated Press All-Americans; both were Player of the Year in the West Coast Conference; both were Academic All-Americans; both studied business management majors; both were ferocious, poker-faced competitors.
Most of the similarities end there. The 6-foot-4 Stepp is bigger and stronger than the 6-1 (maybe) Stockton; the latter was quicker. Stepp was highly recruited out of South Eugene (Ore.) High School and has started all four years in college; Stockton drew little recruiting interest at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane and started three years in college after seeing limited duty as a freshman.
Stepp, playing much tougher competition and surrounded by vastly superior teammates, has better per-game career statistics than Stockton in points (13.0 for Stepp; 12.5 for Stockton), turnovers (2.7 to 2.8) and rebounds (3.9 to 2.2). Stepp's numbers would be even more impressive, but he struggled with injuries as a sophomore, played shooting guard rather than his preferred point guard position most of his first two seasons and has often been pulled early in lopsided games.
Stockton holds a huge advantage over Stepp in field-goal shooting percentage (55.9 to 42.3), partly due to the fact that the NCAA did not have the 3-point arc in Stockton's day. Stepp, who has nailed a school-record 286 3-pointers on 39.0 percent shooting, holds a decided advantage over Stockton in free-throw shooting percentage (81.2 to 71.9). Stockton easily leads Stepp in steals per game (2.5 to 1.2) and is slightly ahead in assists (5.2 to 5.0).
Stockton, of course, improved enormously after college, made 10 NBA all-star teams and won two Olympic gold medals. Stepp, a reserve on a U.S. team of college stars at the Pan American Games last summer, has grown close to Stockton (who regularly attends Gonzaga games). They've scrimmaged against one another throughout Stepp's college career.
"Any time you can beat him, it's especially fun," Stepp says with a smile. "It doesn't happen very often, so you have to enjoy it."
Stepp was recently named one of 20 finalists for the Wooden Award, presented annually to college basketball's top player. Pepperdine's Paul Westphal and San Diego's Brad Holland, WCC coaches who were first-round draft choices and shooting guards in the NBA, differ widely on their opinion of Stepp's NBA future.
Westphal says Stepp is "a lock" to go in the first round this summer, but Holland says he's not certain Stepp will be drafted in either round. Stockton, one of four ex-Bulldogs ever to play in the NBA, is the only Zag who has made a significant impact.
"The big thing is to be with the right team at the right time," Holland says.
Stepp says he's willing to play any position in the NBA or pro leagues overseas -- "I'll play center if I have to" -- but he is adamant that his best position in the pros would be point guard. He's one of the best at the long lob passes to the rim that the pros love so much. Holland, however, believes Stepp's future is at shooting guard.
"I think he'll have trouble guarding point guards at the next level," Holland says.
Smaller, quicker guards have sometimes posed problems for Stepp, but the soft-spoken senior has been routinely dominant, particularly the past two years. His scoring average has dropped from 18.0 in 2002-03 to 14.7 this year (Stockton's average soared from 13.9 as a junior to 20.9 as a senior), but some of Stepp's numbers have been hurt by Gonzaga's great offensive balance and his many early exits in blowouts.
Stepp enters the NCAA Tournament averaging 6.7 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals. His assists, rebounds, field-goal shooting percentage (45.5) and 3-point shooting percentage (40.7) are career highs. His free-throw shooting percentage (83.1) is just a notch below last year's career-best 83.3.
"He's one of the best, if not the best, point guards in the country," Gonzaga center Cory Violette says.
"I really think he rivals Steve Nash and Dan Dickau as one of the really good guards to come out of this league," says Holland, referring to current NBA point guards Nash (with Dallas via Santa Clara) and Dickau (with Portland via Gonzaga).
"What Blake's got going for him is better size than those guys, and I think he's a better shooter, with better range. Nash might have a little quickness on him."
Holland raves about Stepp's on-court leadership -- "You can really tell this is his team." The somewhat reserved Stepp says he's worked hard on being more vocal this season.
"He's a better leader this year... he's vocal when he needs to be," Violette says.
"It's my senior year," Stepp explains. "Definitely, as a point guard, I should be a little more vocal than I've been in the past."
"When something has to be said, Blake says it," Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf adds. "He doesn't talk that much, but when he does, something good comes out of his mouth."
Stepp literally grew up in the gym at South Eugene High, where his father, Dean, coached Blake and older brother Bart.
"When they were 18 months old, both of them could dribble correctly with a leather basketball on a regulation floor," says Dean, who retired and moved to Coeur d'Alene with wife Judy last year. "They could both dribble the length of the court, shoot the ball about two feet in the air, reverse pivot, then dribble down to the other end of the court.
"Their first word -- both of them -- was 'ball.' It was not 'mama.'"
Judy, the daughter of former Washington State basketball star Pete Hooper, was pregnant with Blake when the Stepps first saw Lake Coeur d'Alene and fell in love with the area. The family spent many summers on the lake, and the Stepp boys honed their skills on the outdoor basketball court at the old Kootenai High in downtown Harrison.
Bart, like Dean, played guard at the small college level. Bart, 32, coaches the Lebanon (Ore.) High boys basketball team and likes to think he can still shoot better than his kid brother. Blake, who wears No. 10 out of respect for Bart's old No. 10 uniforms, would definitely accept the challenge.
"That's his greatest attribute -- he's an unbelievable competitor," Few says. "He's just a bottom-line winner."
"Blake does all the things that make you win, and he does them often," Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd adds.
"He's the best passer in the country," Dean Stepp says. "No one is even close."
Stepp, who won the WCC Player of the Year award for the second year in a row (Stockton won only as a senior), is headed to his fourth straight NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are 106-22 (.828) the past four years, including 27-2 with 20 straight wins this season.
Stepp flatly states, "This is the best team I've ever played on." The Bulldogs have maintained all season they are capable of bringing an NCAA championship to the little Catholic school by the Spokane River.
"It's so hard to go all the way in the tournament and eventually win," Stepp says. "So many things have got to go right.
"But we have a lot of people on this team who can do different things. If we're all clicking, there's no telling what we can do."
Publication date: 03/17/04