By Jon Mahoney, Special to SI.com, SchoolSports.com
Take, for example, the 31 points, 27 rebounds and four blocks he posted in a win over Chaminade or the 29 points and 31 boards he dropped in a victory over Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. He finished the year averaging 20.4 points, 17.8 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game, and his 588 total boards passed former Wolverines star and current New Jersey Nets center Jason Collins to make Stepheson the school's single-season rebounding leader.
And while Stepheson is normally considered a lunch-pail type of worker in the post, his athleticism was on full display against Notre Dame when he flushed an Amare-like dunk.
"While he was in the air, he caught a rebound that was behind his head, reached back and windmill dunked it," recalls Hilliard, who guided Harvard-Westlake to this year's Southern California Division III finals, where the Wolverines lost to Artesia. "The Notre Dame bench was even up and it was still a fairly close game. I don't think anyone will ever forget that dunk."
The dramatic increase in Stepheson's stats can be partially attributed to the fact that he asserted himself more offensively this season. He used his physical style of play to attack the basket and get to the charity stripe, and he also showed off some nice post moves and a solid mid-range jumper. On defense, he swatted shots with such regularity that it seemed like he was insulted when opponents tried to invade his territory.
And his rebounding numbers, which were already impressive, improved to mind-blowing digits thanks to what Hilliard says was an increased desire to go after everything that came off the rim. Before this year, Stepheson was simply considered a hard worker on the boards. This season, he was just plain scary.
"Rebounding is very much a mindset, and he's got it," says Hilliard. "It's been a very natural thing for him. He goes and gets ones that really aren't available to most humans. He makes rebounding a highlight film."
Stepheson also says his improved play this season is the result of numerous hours spent in the weight room. During the offseason, he worked out four days a week in the gym and constantly pushed himself, no matter how tired he got.
"After last summer, I just felt a lot stronger," says Stepheson. "I definitely realized the effects in my game and my confidence."
"He has his own little station that he goes to every single workout," adds Hilliard. "They call him 'The Beast' in there, and he is."
Following his graduation from Harvard-Westlake this spring, Stepheson will take his game to North Carolina, which he chose over UConn. At UNC, he'll be a long way from his dad, his mom, Diane, and his sisters, Naima and Erin. But the chance to learn under legendary coach Roy Williams, who led the Tar Heels to a national title in 2005, was an incredible opportunity he couldn't turn down.
"In my heart, I just wanted to go to UNC," says Stepheson. "Coach Williams is just a great coach and the academic program was just too good to pass up."
Hilliard believes the sky is the limit for Stepheson and that playing at UNC will only help his potential come to fruition.
"I think Alex is the kind of player that might even do better in the pros than he does at this level," says Hilliard. "He looks like a guy that they would covet because he'll go and get rebounds and defend. Put that with good guards, and that's a luxury. With his work ethic and the fact he's going to be tutored by Roy Williams and playing against top competition, he has a chance to reach that level."
And if that happens, Stepheson can thank some of those early battles with his dad for helping make him the inside force he is today.