The 12th-year Ole Miss head coach believes he’s done just that with the addition of Jones County Junior College forward Bruce Stevens.
Stevens, who committed to the Rebels in late March, signed and officially became an Ole Miss Rebel Friday afternoon, the third day of the spring signing period that runs from April 12 until May 17. Stevens, a first team NJCAA All-American, was ranked as the No. 6 overall junior college player by JUCORecruiting.com.
“Adding Bruce was a big get for us,” Kennedy said. “You’re talking about a kid at 6-foot-8, upwards of 250 right now. He’s a guy that brings a skill-set we were sorely lacking from last year’s team in his ability to stretch the floor out to 3. He’s also a very good back-to-the-basket scorer.”
Stevens steps in at a position that sorely lacked in offensive production last season. The Rebels finished 22-14 overall, including a run to the quarterfinals of the NIT. But they did so without much by way of points from their front court outside of All-SEC forward Sebastian Saiz.
Forwards Justas Furmanavicius and Marcanvis Hymon combined to average 10.0 points per game at the four. Stevens, by comparison, averaged 16.2 points and 11.2 rebounds while shooting 51.9 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent on 3-point attempts a year ago.
“The year before we had Stefan Moody, and he ended up leading the SEC in scoring,” Kennedy said. “Moody was going to have good nights and bad nights as it related to shooting the ball. But it was very difficult for teams to take him out of the equation because, as a guard, he had the ball. He wasn’t dependent upon others in order to create offense. It was up to us as a coaching staff to put him in a position where he could go make plays, and he did that more times than not.
“When you have a big, it’s easier to deny them touches schematically for our opponent if we don’t have other people that can hurt them. That’s what happened to Sebas. He had a monster year, but if we would have had Tomasz Gielo, who made some 60 3s at close to 40 percent the year before with the ability to stretch you and space the floor, I think Sebas would have had more room to be more effective. That’s an issue we had to deal with. We just really struggled to score at that spot. It was something that was a high priority for us going into the spring period. Adding Bruce with the size, with the experience, with the skill-set, I think it enhances our roster.”
In addition to Ole Miss, Stevens received significant recruiting interest from, among others, Georgetown, Western Kentucky, Mississippi State, Oregon State and Memphis. The hope is he can slide in alongside 7-foot Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak, the ready-made replacement for Saiz who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Olejniczak played in 20 games as a true freshman at Drake in 2015-16. He averaged 6.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, including a 72.2 percent mark from the field. He recorded 21 blocked shots. Olejniczak averaged 10.3 points per game and 4.6 rebounds in the final nine games of his freshman season — all starts — and 16.6 points per game and 7.7 rebounds in his last three.
“He had a terrific year,” Kennedy said of Stevens. “He was an integral part of Jones, I think, going 29-2 and going to the National Tournament. They had a tough draw and they got beat in the second round, but he had a tremendous year.
“He’s a walking double-double, and obviously we’re losing the best double-double guy in the history of our program in Sebastian Saiz. I think Bruce had 22 on the year, which are similar to what Sebas got last year for us. We’re really excited about what he’s going to bring to the table and the compliment he’ll be to the guys we already have in the fold. Obviously Dominik Olejniczak, a 7-footer who we had sitting out last year, he’s been in the program a year, and Dom’s a big, strong, block-to-block, old-school five. We need somebody that’s going to create some space; a situation that, quite frankly, we did not have this year. Sebas had a tremendous year; as good as we’ve had from a front-court guy maybe in the history of our program. When you look at the numbers that he put up, he’ll go down as one of the best players in the history of our program. Despite him having a monster year of averaging close to 16 and 12 on the year, he was doing in against constant doubles and against constant traffic in the paint because at the four spot we did not have the ability to stretch the floor. They were just sitting that extra defender on top of him, which created some issues.
“Hopefully Bruce will alleviate those for Dom moving forward."