November 28, 2013

Yee-Stephens ready to roll

Kevin McCarthy

One of the “aha” processes in basketball prospect maturation comes when a young talent moves from a plus skill in a single element to a broadening and deepening of court competencies. Call it traveling the path towards full potential realization and Kaijae Yee-Stephens is a prime example as he's now primed to unleash his new game on opponents.

photo of Kaijae Yee-Stephens

The approaching 6-foot-2 Stephens, of Santa Cruz High and the West Valley Basketball Club (WVBC), averaged double figures, 10.4 points per game as a varsity freshman in 2012-13 but quietly so and in a basketball media backwater. While his point production was laudable, especially so for a newcomer, catch-and-shoot scoring was most often the extent of his threat to opponents.

However, after a spring and summer of skill development efforts and participation in camps and tournaments in California plus Las Vegas, Yee-Stephens has taken his game to a higher level.

WVBC Coach Al Grigsby is in Yee-Stephens' corner. The former Cal great offered, “Kaijae started out struggling a bit but then got better every day. In the summer, he really came on and allowed Kiree Hutchings to do what he does best -- be a point guard rather than a scoring guard. We asked Kaijae to get quicker and he did. Now he can go by people and is also strong enough to post up. He also stepped up as a leader and helps some of our guys during practice.”

Grigsby offered an anecdote to detail how much Yee-Stephens both loves the game and is willing to make the effort maximize his effectiveness: “When we work our kids out, we go hard. But Kaijae would do his own workout before coming to ours. He is always working on his body and game. He gets it.”

Asked to offer his best basketball skills, he offered, “Definitely, my shooting.” There weren't many, if any, opponents last season who could match his catch-and-shoot proficiency. But now he is ready to unveil his newly developed post-up, dribble-drive, defending and rebounding prowess. Alongside this technical progress has come greater confidence but an important sense of reality remains -- “I need to work on my ballhandling and quickness.”

Another aspect that aided Yee-Stephens' advancement was playing up in open gyms. One in particular takes place at Santa Cruz High during the summer where usually a quarter or less of the participants are prep level talents. Basketball players from UC Santa Cruz and nearby Cabrillo College make up the bulk of those on the court, not 15-year-olds.

Plus, here's an anecdote that details the character of Yee-Stephens: after traveling back from a tournament in Los Angeles where he wasn't particularly pleased with his play, he asked his father to drop him off at open gym rather than home.

A revealing element is his response to why basketball as his chosen sport when he displayed a strong aptitude for baseball not that long ago: “It's fun and team-oriented. You count on your teammates and they count on you.”

Yee-Stephens views Steve Nash as one of his basketball influences -- “a great leader who is athletic enough” -- as well as Tet Amen-Ra who as Yee-Stephens' personal trainer (and current girls junior varsity coach at Santa Cruz High) works with him on skills and conditioning as well as what involves being a team leader.

“Beating St. Ignatius in the CCS semi-finals” ranks as Yee-Stephens' top basketball moment. The Cardinals were underdogs to the top-seeded Wildcats and “no one was expecting us to beat them” yet Santa Cruz triumphed 48-47 up in San Francisco.

The Cardinals finished 19-12 last season, 10-2 in the Santa Cruz Coast League. Yee-Stephens sees better chemistry within the Cardinals this season with he and talented junior point Kiree Hutchings leading the way.