Handing Over The Keys: Gabe Stefanini and a Changing Columbia Rebuild

(Photo: Ben Goldsmith, Graphic: Chase Manze)

(Photo: Ben Goldsmith, Graphic: Chase Manze)

Nobody wants to be the ‘glue guy’. In basketball, being the best player means scoring in bunches, showing off absurd athleticism, making highlight plays and soaking up adoration. Doing the little things that don’t show up in the box score gets you more cuts and bruises than moments in the limelight. But there is a certain grace that comes from reveling in dirty work, and when doing the little things evolves into doing everything, a glue guy quickly becomes irreplaceable.

Gabe Stefanini began the basketball season an unknown quantity and quickly emerged as Columbia’s glue, a life raft keeping the Lions afloat. For a program desperately needing a steady hand, Stefanini’s exemplary play offered a glimpse at the team-wide sea change that can occur when a role player becomes a star.

The seminal shift occurred in December, when an already-thin Lions roster lost star guard Mike Smith to a season-ending meniscus injury. Head coach Jim Engles was left without a nominal point guard on a young, struggling team. Senior sharpshooter Quinton Adlesh and junior big Patrick Tapé were the lone holdovers from last season’s top seven players in terms of minutes played—neither had ever shouldered much burden in terms of offensive creation at the collegiate level.

A sophomore from Italy, Stefanini began the season starting at shooting guard next to Smith after starting just one game as a first-year. Streaky from the get-go, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard notched games of 33, 26, and 23 points before Smith went down but peppered in the same number of single-digit showings. Still, he was averaging 15.6 points, 1.9 steals and shooting an ungodly 59% from three-point land before The Injury, providing a welcome scoring punch and stout wing defense for an inexperienced, undersized Lions squad.

Smith’s injury sucked the life out of the program for a few weeks. A meniscus tear has a 4-6 month recovery timetable; the question wasn’t whether he would be back this season, but how long into the offseason he would have to rehab. The 5-foot-11 dynamo was leading Columbia in scoring and assists yet again before he went down, and his absence highlighted not just the team’s lack of firepower, but its lack of creators to boot.

So, placed into the position of his youth, less than a year after riding the bench, Stefanini received the keys to the car.

For Engles, Stefanini was the logical choice to replace Smith running the show. The Italian had the requisite experience: a star point guard growing up in Bologna, he came to the U.S. at 16 and by his senior year at Bergen Catholic had led the team to the New Jersey state championship game and earned all-state honors while playing at both guard spots.

Stefanini was quite used to winning with the ball in his hands, but he’s a combo guard in most senses—a talented passer, but looks to shoot first; in the Ivy League, his wiry frame and competitiveness allow him to match up with wings, but his size best suits him to point guard.

“I think what you’re seeing is really what he is. He’s got the capability of a point, but he’s also really a two guard as well ’cause he can score,” Engles explained in-season. “He’s seeing so many different things now that he’s got to create for other guys.”

So, placed into the position of his youth, less than a year after riding the bench, Stefanini received the keys to the car. But if the team was a Porsche with Smith at the wheel—fast-paced, running and gunning and launching threes from everywhere—it quickly came to resemble a pickup truck with Stefanini driving. His presence plus Smith’s perpetual absence revived the team’s defense but placed the offense into a vat of molasses, turning every game into a gritty, grind-it-out affair and most possessions into a struggle.

Most of this was purposeful. Replacing Smith with Stefanini gifted Engles with significantly better defensive matchups—instead of a hardworking but undersized liability, he now started a smothering weapon at the one and could hide Adlesh, the two, on the opposition’s weaker guard. But the replacement giveth, and the replacement taketh away. Smith’s experience and infallibility were nigh-impossible to replace—sometimes he’d force shots, and he could be turnover-prone, but exchanging a skilled and explosive veteran for a combo guard inexperienced in distribution was bound to be a work in progress.

And it was. After topping 80 points in six of its first eight games, Columbia hit that mark in only one of Stefanini’s first ten starts at point guard—against a Division III team in Elmira College. Losing Smith and moving Stefanini created a domino effect: not only did the Lions lose their best creator, but their most explosive multi-level wing scorer now had to focus on becoming a pass-first point guard. The scoring statistics with and without Smith are telling: the team’s field goal percentage dropped from 46.8 to 44.6 and its points-per-game from 79.8 to 71.1.

(Ben Goldsmith)

(Ben Goldsmith)

“When we recruited him, that’s one of the things that really stood out—he’s got such a high motor,” Engels said.

Despite the midseason learning curve and rocky transition, Stefanini was making tangible and impressive progress. His shot cratered in his first six games running the team, a month-long stretch at the end of out-of-conference play that saw him shoot just 26 percent from the field as he figured out how to control the offense. Still, he averaged 6.3 assists per game in those matches, slowly getting his sea legs under him in time for conference play.

When Ivy League games began, his stellar play renewed in full force to the tune of at least 18 points in four of Columbia’s first five games. Stefanini continued to guard the opponents’ best creator and immediately began to shoulder an enormous workload, playing 34.3 minutes per game in Ivy play and soaking up an egregious 80 percent of available minutes for the Lions.

“When we recruited him, that’s one of the things that really stood out—he’s got such a high motor,” Engels said. “He plays so hard and he’s so aggressive. Sometimes I have to tone him down a little bit, but it’s easier to tone down than to turn up.”

It is in this aspect that the sophomore was so vital and impressive for Columbia—a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none skillset that allowed Engles to use him as a workhorse, filling every conceivable role in leading the young, at times patchwork unit. On the season, he was eighth in the Ivy League in points per game, first in assists per game, third in steals per game, and 11th in rebounds per game. He was the only player in the league to average at least 12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and shoot over 40% from three-point land.

The Lions remained severely undersized even without playing Smith—Tapé was the only rotation staple measuring over 6-foot-7. So Stefanini started crashing the boards himself and ended up 13th in the conference in defensive rebound rate, the only player in the top 15 checking in at under 6-foot-5.

Not a true point–certainly not rebounding like one—he somehow finished second in the league in assist percentage; despite never topping three dimes in a game across his first season, his 4.8 assists per game after Smith went down would best any full-season mark from Smith himself. The shift in mentality was evident—something Stefanini attributed to an improved feel of the game and control over the offensive rhythm. Like any intelligent ball-handler, he began to make his teammates comfortable early and only took over scoring responsibilities when necessary.

“If I see my teammates getting involved, making shots early, everyone, I try to get them involved in the first half, cause I know my shots are going to come sooner or later,” he elaborated. “So I don’t like to rush them, and at the end, I like to take the responsibility on my shoulders.”

While his scoring, and particularly his outside shot, dropped off from his prodigious early-season pace, he landed in double digits in the points column in 11 out of 14 Ivy games, invaluable consistency for a team with precious little offensive firepower. He attacked the rim with renewed vigor in Ancient Eight matches, averaging 3.79 free throw attempts per game after going to the line just 1.71 times per contest in non-conference play.

(Ben Goldsmith)

(Ben Goldsmith)

“Mike and Gabe are going to be as dynamic a duo in the backcourt as there’s going to be in the league,” Adlesh emphasized.

Everything coalesced at the end of the season. Sitting at 6-16 and 1-7 in Ivy play, the team rode Stefanini to four wins in its final six games, Engels’ best-ever stretch in league competition. Stefanini, clearly gassed at the tail end of a trying season, averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the final stretch, filling the stat sheet while the Lions scraped out each win.

“It definitely took a bit to get some chemistry going, but we are so confident that I think we can beat anyone in the league, most teams,” Stefanini asserted towards the end of the season. “We lost so many close games. It was like a learning process, all learning how to be under control and how to win games.”

It was still a mixed bag. His prowess as a creator does not change the fact that he’s likely better off-ball; spot-up shooting is likely his greatest offensive strength, one that’s mitigated with the rock in his hands. He shot like a Hall-of-Famer from three during his 1.5 seasons off the ball, but his percentages plummeted as the primary creator.

His biggest weakness, scoring inside, was on glaring display the entire season—there may not be a clear solution aside from maximized spacing and cleaner driving lanes. He shot an abysmal 43.2 percent from inside the arc; he’s neither explosive enough at the rim or creative enough away from it to get the clean looks he needs.

All that will get easier with Smith back. Opponents should be terrified of what next year’s team can become with Smith at the wheel and Stefanini playing Robin.

“Mike and Gabe are going to be as dynamic a duo in the backcourt as there’s going to be in the league,” Adlesh emphasized.

It’s still not a stretch to say that most of the team’s potential rests on Stefanini. Most other players have defined roles: Smith the creator and occasional streak shooter; Tapé the mid-post staple and rim-protector; Maka Ellis the spark plug scorer; young bigs Ike Nweke and Randy Brumant wreaking havoc and crashing the boards from the weak side and Jake Killingsworth and Tai Bibbs as the three-and-D wings. Stefanini’s role, though, is limitless—the on-ball defensive stopper, three-point bomber, backup point guard, and possible leading rebounder.
He wasn’t supposed to be this good this early. Only in his second year, Stefanini’s emergence as one of the toughest two-way guards—players, in general—in the Ivy League turned a rebuilding season into a portent of future Columbia ascendancy. He’s the glue guy, but he’s also the best player—the life preserver that became an engine.