Her little sister wasn’t so little anymore, a budding high school player with long arms and growing frame. Most interesting to Da’Shena, though, was her sister’s game.
“She started to stretch a little bit and shoot the 3,” Da’Shena said. “I started to see her add that to her game and I was really impressed.”
Azura Stevens was just entering high school. Da’Shena, six years older, was playing at St. John’s and understood what was required to thrive at the next level.
She saw it in her sister.
Fast forward to 2017. Da’Shena is an assistant coach at St. John’s and her sister is again taking her game to a different level.
After two years at Duke, where Stevens was an All-ACC First Team selection, she transferred to UConn. And after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules, Stevens is ready to debut for the team considered a favorite to win a national title.
At age 21, Stevens is a 6-foot-6 hybrid player, capable of handling the ball, scoring from the perimeter or maneuvering in the lane. She is one of the most fascinating players in the country as she joins a team that lost just one game and returns four starters.
There are few players with her skill set — the gifts of a guard with the body of a post player.
It’s no accident. As a teenager, Stevens plotted her course as a player and her focus was fixated on versatility.
“From a young age,” Stevens said, “my dad [Damon] did a really good job of helping me to develop sort of some perimeter skills because a lot of girls my size can’t really do what I can do. So I did always think from the beginning about that, that it would be something that would separate me. Definitely, as the game’s evolving, you can see a lot of girls who are my size are starting to be able to on the perimeter and be comfortable.”
Last season, players and coaches at UConn caught a glimpse of those unique skills. Stevens practiced with the Huskies, often facing the starting lineup of a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country all season.
Stevens’ ability to shoot from the arc was on display in practice after practice. But she also made an effort to capitalize on her size as she worked to refine her inside game.
The result? Stevens will have two seasons of eligibility left at UConn and she is capable of being a special player.
“She’s everything that we thought she would be from an offensive standpoint,” Geno Auriemma said. “She’s got tremendous skill. You talk about somebody who’s got incredible skills, I would say if anybody’s going to shoot a 3, if anybody’s going to shoot a shot — other than [Katie Lou Samuelson] — to win a game, I think Z is as good a shooter as there is, on our team or any team.”
Auriemma has said Stevens worked hard to diversify her offensive game. He’s also prodded her to be better at the defensive end, where she seemingly has the size and body type — take a look at her long arms — to be an elite shot blocker.
But part of being a tenacious defender is tied to personality. Stevens, Auriemma says, is a somewhat passive.
“She’s a great, great kid,” Auriemma said. “But she’s laid back.”
That personality trait may be evolving on the court. A year in the UConn system could be pushing Stevens.
“I expect her to be more aggressive and really show different parts of her game on the floor,” Da’Shena said.
Da’Shena grew up in Stamford and went to high school at Trinity Catholic before playing at St. John’s, where she was Big East Freshman of the Year. She scored 27 points in a loss to UConn as a freshman and was on the St. John’s team that won at Gampel Pavilion in 2012, breaking UConn’s 99-game home winning streak.
In college, Da’Shena would visit her family in North Carolina during the summer. She mentored Azura, guiding her through the recruiting process.
When it came time to transfer, Azura picked her sister’s brain. And let’s just say big sister knew a few things about the UConn program that she faced in college.
“I think that it was a tough decision for her,” Da’Shena said. “Essentially, she left home when she left. But I think UConn had everything she was looking for at that point in time. I think she has goals of winning a national championship and playing at the next level, and UConn presented her with that opportunity.
“Their track record speaks for itself. So I think it was one of those things where, if she was going to leave, that’s where she truly had her heart set on. You’ve got to remember, when you come out of the process — she was younger when she made the decision — to go to Duke and after a couple of years ... she just made the decision that was best for her at the time.”
Growing up in Raleigh, Azura was a homebody who focused her high school recruiting on schools in North Carolina. She considered Maryland, but decided to stay in her home state.
When she decided to transfer, Stevens expanded her options.
“I think I felt more ready,” Stevens said. “I don’t think you’re ever totally ready because, obviously, it hasn’t been easy living 11 hours away from home. But I thought more about what it is that I wanted out of a school. As great as it was being around my family, it’s not like I’ll never get to see them. I still get to see them now. And almost makes the times that we spend together that much more special. Because I don’t get to see them a lot, I don’t take them for granted. It’s kind of like, when I see them it’s really great.”
Sitting out was difficult, especially emotionally. As Stevens adjusted to a few school and to living far from home, she was unable to do what she loves most — compete on the basketball floor.
“When you’re used to playing and then having to sit out a whole year, it was definitely an adjustment for her,” Da’Shena said. “But I reminded her, continue to work on your game and the year is going to go by fast. Continue to stay present with the team even though you’re not playing. Still be active in practice, with your coaches, be involved … whatever it is, as if you’re still playing.”
Azura, who shared the transfer experience with forward Batouly Camara, said she went through waves of emotion during the season. She would get caught up in the excitement as the team reeled off wins, but it became hard to keep watching “game after game. … I kind of forgot what it was like to play in a game.”
At the Final Four, Stevens and Camara were in Dallas as the Huskies lost to Mississippi State. Auriemma recalls talking to them as they team left the arena, reminding them they would have an opportunity to contribute in just a few months.
“Just to see the end result, it was devastating to see that,” Stevens said. “And also to feel like I wasn’t really helping in any type of way. Because all I could really do was cheer.”
It changes this season. Now, Auriemma says, Stevens is playing when it matters.
“She practiced with us all last year, but none of it mattered,” Auriemma said. “Now, everything she does gets commented on. Now it matters and it takes some getting used to.”
So the coach will needle her about her defense. And he and his staff will continue to mold her offensive game, moving her all over the court.
“She’s still much more comfortable shooting the ball facing the basket from the perimeter than she is with her back to the basket, but she’s gotten much, much, much, much better with her back to the basket,” Auriemma said.
Stevens says she wants to “own the paint,” simply adding another spot on the floor where she is comfortable. It’s been her focus for the past year, even as she sharpens her perimeter game.
“Just being comfortable being down there, taking contact, being able to finish underneath contact,” Stevens said. “It’s still something that I’m working on.”
At Duke, she took advantage of mismatches. At UConn, there will be the opportunity to do the same as she joined a lineup with three All-Americans — Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams.
However Stevens fits, expect her to evolve and adapt. Her basketball life, from high school and AAU through stops at two marquee programs, has been defined by versatility.
“I think her willingness to always try to expand her game has always been impressive,” Da’Shena said. “She always tried to make sure she added something new to her game, whether it was shooting the 3 or being able to handle the basketball more. … I think it definitely separates her now.”
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