LAFAYETTE — As Johnathan Stove walked off the court for the last time in his sophomore season, Louisiana-Lafayette assistant coach Gus Hauser asserted the notion that it may also be his last time playing second, third or fourth fiddle.
“That’s what coach Gus just told me in the locker room,” Stove said. “He’s like, ‘You know, we need you to get back to scoring like you were back in high school with that confidence.’”
Stove figures to be a crucial offensive cog in the Cajuns plans for the 2016-17 season, because walking off the court with him for the final time Wednesday were four players who accounted for more than half of the Cajuns points this season.
Gone are leading scorers Shawn Long and Kasey Shepherd, the two of which accounted for nearly 3,500 points in their careers.
Also gone are Devonta Walker, who came on late to provide an additional scoring presence in the paint, and Steven Wronkoski, who might’ve been the Cajuns most consistent perimeter shooter in a season where outside shots did not consistently fall.
Those four scored 1,374 of the Cajuns’ Sun Belt-best 2,706 points this season.
Now the Cajuns begin the process of figuring out how to replace those pieces, and Stove might be the guy required to make the biggest leap.
Go back to what Hauser told Stove. The Cajuns saw what Stove was capable of as a scorer back when he was prepping at Christian Life Academy in Baton Rouge when Stove averaged 25.9 points per game as a senior.
But with established scorers like Long and Shepherd — and to a lesser degree, Jay Wright — on the team, Stove hasn’t had to be that guy in his first two years on campus. He often found himself deferring to the seniority around him, fitting into a role as a defensive stopper and slashing complementary scorer.
That deferential role caused Stove’s confidence to waver offensively until coach Bob Marlin stepped in and asked him to start asserting himself offensively.
“At midseason, I didn’t really have confidence,” Stove said. “I was playing a role. I was dependent on everybody else. But coach told me I needed to step up and score the ball for us to be successful. It’s something I can do, but I just took the back seat to it.”
Stove was averaging 7.5 points per game when ULM came to town on Feb. 2. He then ripped off double-digit scoring efforts in seven of the next eight games, scoring 12.5 points per game during that stretch.
After scoring a team-high 13 points in the season-ending loss to UC-Irvine, Stove finished the season scoring 8.9 points per game, a 3.5-point increase from his freshman season.
He also showed an improved stroke from outside, where he knocked down 3-pointers at a 35.7 percent clip, just a 10th of a percentage point behind Wronkoski’s team-best 35.8 percentage from 3-point range.
“He’s going to have to continue to work on his shot and do a good job there, because we want him to stretch his game out a little bit,” Marlin said.
Stove was quick to point out that it’s going to require a team effort to replace the scoring that is leaving with Long, Shepherd, Walker and Wronkoski. Fellow sophomore Bryce Washington will likely have to shoulder more of the burden in the post, and Wright will likely play a bigger role after averaging 9.1 and 8.9 points, respectively, in his first two years.
Those three will also have some new faces joining them to help carry the load.
“I like our guys that are coming back, and we’ve got three scholarship players that we redshirted that we feel two of those three will really help us next year,” Marlin said. “We signed two (recruits) early, and we’ll sign a couple more hopefully.”
But Stove also knows the team is counting on doing what Hauser brought up after the season-ending loss to UC-Irvine, and he’s ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I know I’m going to have to step up and score some more for us to be successful next year,” Stove said. “It’s fine with me. I’m just all about winning. They need me to play defense, I’ll play defense. They need me to score, I’ll score. Whatever it takes for us to get wins.”