January 3, 2019 by Seth Rubinroit
Elijah Stewart now plays for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants
NEW YORK–Steve Gansey was just getting to know Elijah Stewart when he discovered his Snapchat account.
“I remember seeing a six-second video on why Elijah hated how the sheets in hotels are made,” Gansey, head coach of the NBA G League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants, said with a laugh. “He’s an interesting guy.”
USC fans are familiar with the colorful personality of Stewart, who regularly snuck into opposing huddles and even crashed Lyon Center rec games.
After playing a school-record 138 games at USC, Stewart went undrafted. He attended the 2018 NBA Summer League with the Indiana Pacers, but “tweaked something” and did not appear in any games. He went to training camp with the Pacers, who eventually assigned him to the Mad Ants.
Stewart has had several highlight-reel dunks for the Mad Ants in limited opportunities.
“His ability to get to the basket is very intriguing at this level,” Gansey said. “He is extremely athletic, probably one of our most athletic guys on our team.”
But USC’s all-time leader in three-point baskets made has struggled from beyond the arc, shooting just 28 percent in the G League.
“He’s going to keep getting better,” Gansey said. “He really hasn’t gotten a lot of consistent minutes.”
Galen Central caught up with Stewart before the Mad Ants played the Westchester Knicks at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York.
How is life as a professional basketball player?
It’s solid, a lot less stress. No more anxious nights having to write papers or waking up early to cram something. I love it.
You came to USC in 2014, coming off a season in which the Trojans finished last in the Pac-12. What attracted you to USC?
They were trash. I wanted to come help rebuild the program and stay in LA. I went to high school there [Westchester High School] and became ranked there and learned to play basketball there. I wanted to keep it where everything started.
You struggled at times during your freshman season [scoring a total of 26 points in a 13-game stretch], but managed to finish strong [averaging 13 points and 4.4 rebounds over USC’s final eight games]. What did you change?
When I got there, we did generic training. The coaches were still getting a feel of how to train the new players. We were the first class they brought in, and they gave us free rein on how to train and stuff like that. They were teaching us the offense and figuring out what our identity was going to be with the new players coming in.
I went through a slump after the Boston College game [when he tied Taj Gibson’s school record for most makes in a game without a miss by scoring 22 points on 10 shots]. They called it ‘freshman pains.’ People started scouting me differently, and I needed to learn how to play the college game.
Did Andy Enfield say anything to you to help get you out of your ‘freshman pains’?
No because I was still doing other things, like playing defense and blocking shots and rebounding. I just couldn’t hit a three ball. I just needed to get my confidence back.
Then you went on to graduate as USC’s all-time leader in three-point baskets made. How did you get your confidence back?
I used to go play at the Lyon Center with the international kids. I was actually famous there. This guy used to hit me up on Instagram. We didn’t even know each other; he kind of just found me. We used to run the gym. It was fun.
What happens when a 6-foot-5 collegiate basketball player shows up at the Lyon Center?
You get quadruple teamed, and everyone else get layups. Everyone would try to guard me. Then word got out because they started to figure out my schedule, and the gym would get packed. It got competitive sometimes.
Did playing against quadruple teams in the Lyon Center make you a better basketball player?
Not really, because realistically you will never face get quadrupled teamed in real life. I just messed around and passed the ball when they shifted the defense over, or shot deep threes.
Back to the Galen Center, did Enfield give you the green light to shoot once you established yourself?
Yes and no. Coming from my high school program, I knew good shots and how to play within an offense. So I always made sure to continue that and play within the offense and take good shots. There were probably some more uncontested shots I could have gotten away with, and now looking back I wish I did. They had confidence in me to hit the last shot late in games and would sometimes draw up plays for me, but I never really abused that.
Speaking of the shooter’s mentality, your Twitter bio says ‘You miss every shot you don’t take, but if you taking shots and missing them, the first part doesn’t apply to you.’ How did you come up with that?
That’s actually a running joke. One of my teammates used to shoot the crap out of the ball, no matter what. And coach was always telling him, ‘Bro, get everyone else involved.’ But he said, ‘Bro, I’m going to shoot because shooters shoot.’
One of our coaches said that counterargument, and it always stuck with me, because it’s funny as hell.
You can’t leave me hanging like that…who was the player?
I can’t drop no names. They are still playing basketball actually. Shoutout to them. Still shooting.
The other question I have to ask you about your Twitter is that your cover photo is a screenshot of your Venmo username. Does that actually work?
No, it’s never worked. I actually posted that once that one kid [Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes] got in trouble with the NCAA. They threatened to pull his scholarship if he didn’t return all the money he got.
I posted it after he did that in support for the movement. But I didn’t get any money.
What was the best and worst part of playing for Enfield?
The best part was that he gave you the freedom to play basketball. If you were one of his guys, you could basically do whatever you wanted. That was a curse and a blessing because sometimes when we needed to buckle down, people abused the trust he gave us. We lost a few games because of it that we needed to win, but other than that, there were no negatives.
He loves to joke. He can take a joke, but he can also give one out. I really enjoyed him. He actually still texts me.
What was the last thing he texted you?
The last thing he texted me was ‘Happy New Year.’ I actually still need to get back to him. I get so busy sometimes, especially with the time difference. Sometimes when I’m sleeping I’ll wake up to his texts.
Does he still comment on your game?
I feel likes he’s trying to worry about his kids right now. He’s not really worried about me hooping. But if I ever need a place to go crash at, he’s always offering his house to me, so I’m going to take him up on it one day.
What was your favorite memory from your time at USC?
Probably March Madness, when we beat SMU. I hit a [game-winning] corner three and it was crazy.
We would often see you sneak into the huddle of the opposing team. How did that habit start?
Whenever I do that, it’s technically an illegal timeout and the coach just huddles his players together. Then you can just chill there and they can’t move you. But if it’s a mandatory timeout or a TV timeout, you can’t sneak into the huddle. It’s just something to get underneath their skin and throw them off their game.
How has the speed of the game changed going from college to the G League?
It’s been solid. I got introduced to it when I went to training camp with the Pacers.
How was training camp with the Pacers?
It was fun. I got to meet a lot of people. When we are with the Pacers, we are always together. They preach being a family, the three teams. They stick to it. We were seeing each other at least 10 hours a day.
What do you want to improve in the short term?
I’ve been improving so much since I left college. It was a really big summer for me. I left school a little early, so I didn’t get a chance to walk, but I still graduated and got my diploma in the mail.
All of the sacrifices paid off. I got better with my decision-making, ball handling and shooting. The extra space from the college to the NBA line is a big deal. You really have to get your legs into it.
I feel like I’ve transitioned well. I’m just waiting on my opportunity.
What is your realistic goal for an NBA opportunity?
I’ve been talking with guys in the G League, and they say around the second or third year you really know if you are going to fit in or not. I’m just taking it year by year. I think I have the talent to play basketball at the next level, but there’s a lot of basketball to be played around the world if not. I’m not really scared.
What has been like going against your former USC teammates?
It’s been fun. I think Jordan [McLaughlin] had [24 points] against us.
I haven’t played against [Chimezie Metu or De’Anthony Melton], but it’s nice to see them playing well.
Finally, your coach told me to ask you about your thoughts on hotel beds and how the sheets are tucked in.
That’s funny. They are tucked in so tight! Especially in the hotel we are staying in now, I tried to tuck myself in and I had to untuck every cover, and it was really hard! I don’t know how they perfect that technique of tight tucking, but they are always super, super tight.