- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

DeShawn Stevenson jumped to the NBA out of high school before the prep-to-pros epidemic that brought about last season’s eligibility changes.

Selected in the first round of the 2000 draft by the Utah Jazz, Stevenson admits he didn’t handle his newfound fame and dollars well.

Stevenson was charged with statutory rape after his first season in Utah and found himself at an NBA crossroads. Would he become a professional with staying power in the league or the next in a line of once-promising stars spinning out of control and out of the NBA?

“If you wake up every day and play basketball and get paid for it, it would be stupid to act up,” the Washington Wizards guard said. “It is not worth it.”

Stevenson, now in his seventh season, is far removed from those early career troubles.

He is a family man with two children and has learned to stay away from potential trouble spots. By all accounts, he has been a model citizen on and off the court. Stevenson, who turned 26 earlier this month, has been a solid contributor for the Wizards as a standout defender and a offensive complement to the team’s top scoring threats.

“We got more than we thought we would,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “His 3-point shooting is better. His field goal percentage is better. He just has a stoic, professional demeanor on the floor. He takes on the best offensive players. He is just a shark out there.”

And now injuries to teammates have made Stevenson one of the Wizards’ most important players.

Stevenson has sacrificed much of his offensive game this season, with his main role on offense to help set up Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler.

But that began to change April 1, when Butler, who was averaging 19.1 points a game, broke his right hand and was done for the regular season. Three days later, Arenas and his 28.4-point average were lost to a season-ending knee injury and surgery.

With the pair of All-Stars sidelined, Stevenson has been asked to become a major offensive force. The Wizards enter the playoffs free-falling without their top perimeter players and desperately hoping Stevenson can help fill the glaring void on the scoreboard.

“For us to be successful I am going to have to step up scoring. That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I need to be a leader and show everybody what I can do without Gilbert and Caron. I think everybody knows what I can do with them here. I proved it all year. But I think people want to see if I am going to fold or not without them.”

The shooting guard who didn’t shoot too much was having a fine if underappreciated season, averaging 11.2 points while shooting a career- and team-best 40.4 percent from 3-point range.

Stevenson was the only Wizards player to start all 82 regular-season games and is averaging a career-best 2.7 assists.

The Wizards signed Stevenson after letting last season’s starting shooting guard, Jared Jeffries (a restricted free agent), leave for New York for a five-year, $30 million deal. Stevenson, meanwhile, is earning the minimum for a six-year NBA player at $932,000 this season.

Stevenson quickly adjusted to his supporting role, with Arenas and Butler attacking from the perimeter and Antawn Jamison producing in the paint.

“I just kind of stayed back because they took a lot of shots,” he said.

That plan was scratched when Arenas and Butler went down.

“We definitely need him because you go from Gilbert being the point guard and him creating to [Antonio Daniels], who is not really a perimeter threat,” said Jamison, now the main focus of defenses. “We have a lot of guys on the inside who can do some damage, but it’s kind of hard when you are not keeping the defenses honest and spreading them out a little bit.”

The early results of Stevenson’s upgraded role have been inconsistent at best. Since Arenas went down, the Wizards have lost six of eight games. Stevenson is averaging 13.3 points and shooting 33.3 percent (32.7 percent on 3-pointers) in that span.

He has had numerous poor shooting nights — including a 2-for-14 performance in Tuesday’s 95-89 loss at home to Orlando — and a few impressive performances, such as when he scored 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting (4-for-8 on 3-pointers) as the Wizards ended a six-game losing streak in Atlanta on April 13.

Stevenson has taken it upon himself to try to create off the dribble, something he rarely did before the injuries. He’s also drawing additional defensive attention now that he is one of the team’s top scoring options.

In addition to giving him a chance to increase his role, playing in the postseason also should help Stevenson secure a lucrative contract. Stevenson is effectively on a one-year deal, which he signed after turning down Orlando’s three-year, $10.5 million offer following last season.

“People thought I was crazy passing up that kind of money,” Stevenson said. “I thought it was kind of a slap in the face. I already had a three-year, $9 million deal, and they were giving me only about a million raise. I thought I deserved more than.”

Stevenson started all 82 games for the Magic last season, averaging 11.0 points. When Stevenson rejected Orlando’s offer, the Magic basically forced him out by signing swingman Keith Bogans. Stevenson still had a year left on his original Orlando contract, which paid him $3 million a season, but he used his player’s option to void that final year.

It did not initially pay off.

Numerous teams were interested, but none made a rich offer. Stevenson decided on the Wizards because they were a playoff team and because they had an opening for a shooting guard. Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said the team decided not to match Jeffries’ offer “as soon as DeShawn signed.”

For Stevenson, it was essentially a one-season showcase with big money at stake.

“I had a great year,” said Stevenson, who signed a two-year deal with the Wizards but is expected to use his player’s option to nullify next season. “I think I have earned a big contract.”

Jordan and Grunfeld both feel Stevenson is a good fit and would like to have him back. Stevenson feels the same way.

“I haven’t had talks, but I have done everything they have asked when I came in,” he said. “I don’t think Gilbert wants me to go. I don’t think anybody wants me to go. I want to be here. I think this is a home for me.”

Home is something Stevenson has been searching for since he entered the league.

After averaging 30.4 points a game at Washington Union High School in Fresno, Calif, he was one of only two prep players — along with Darius Miles, who went third overall to the Los Angeles Clippers — drafted that year.

But Stevenson had some significant maturing to do. He was arrested for getting into a fight the night he was drafted when he was a spectator at a high school all-star game.

After his rookie season with the Jazz, he was charged with the statutory rape of a 14-year-old. Stevenson, then 20, and a former high school teammate reportedly bought brandy and took two underage girls to a motel.

Stevenson pleaded no contest to the charge and received two years’ probation and 1,000 hours of community service.

“Whenever you get in trouble, you have to re-evaluate yourself and your life,” Stevenson said. “I had to grow up. …

“You make so much money that you can’t close the club down. You come in here, and you don’t think you are a celebrity, but you are. You have to put yourself in different situations because there are people out there that know who you are and what you make. They can come in and say something to you, and you hit them, and it is in the news. You just have to be smart and put yourself in the best situations.”

Stevenson believes he is even more responsible now that he is the father of two: a son, DeShawn Jr., and a daughter, Skye Christian.

“If I go somewhere, I am with family,” he said. “I always bring somebody with me so I won’t be in those situations. I bowl. I don’t go to clubs that much. I do stuff like movies to stay out of trouble where grown folks are going to be.”

Stevenson learned about the NBA from legendary Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and future Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone. He averaged 2.2 points in limited play as rookie. His breakout season came in his fourth, when he earned a starting spot and averaged 11.4 before being dealt at midseason to Orlando for Gordon Giricek.

He spent 2½ seasons with the Magic.

And now, he finishes his first season in Washington under unlikely conditions — a support player forced into a leading role.

“Now I have to be more aggressive,” Stevenson said. “It doesn’t matter who is here. I am going to put on a game face and go play.”

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