Why UConn’s Stephon Castle is a ‘different kind of five-star’

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Stacey Castle was not happy with the lack of focus he saw out of his son on February 6, and he let him know about it.

After back-to-back 20-point games, the first two of his career, Stephon Castle took a step back against Butler. He missed a pair of open layups early and was scoreless at halftime, finishing with five points on 2-for-6 from the field. Over a month after the game, Stacey remembered the specific play that helped Butler get within five with less than three minutes left in Hartford.

“One of the things immediately that I was on him about,” Stacey said, “he was standing there on the wing and he let (Posh Alexander) just zip a pass right by him to (Pierre) Brooks for a wide-open 3 and I just couldn’t understand. That was the lack in focus.”

“His dad ripped him,” coach Dan Hurley said. “Didn’t rip me or (Kimani Young). When you have that, and you have his talent, things are gonna go well.”

Castle followed that poor performance with 17 points on 8-for-11 shooting in a dominant win over Georgetown. He scored in double figures in seven of his next nine games and set a record for weekly Big East honors, surpassing the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson as he coasted to the Big East Freshman of the Year trophy.

Those post-game conversations with his dad – “constructive criticism,” Steph calls it – sometimes happen immediately after the game but usually a bit later. It’s what they’ve done for years.

“I don’t think a lot of kids get told the truth enough in this sport and that’s one thing he was able to get,” Stacey said. “He’s able to take some of the success but know that he still needs to work on some things, so it’s a great balance. I’m happy that he was able to take the message, sometimes that’s tough too. You have kids when you’re telling them stuff, they don’t always get the message, they only hear the tone. He’s able to separate the two.”

UConn guard Stephon Castle (5) reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Marquette in the championship of the Big East Conference tournament, Saturday, March 16, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
UConn guard Stephon Castle (5) reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Marquette in the championship of the Big East Conference tournament, Saturday, March 16, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

‘Why won’t you coach me again?’

Stacey Castle grew up in Queens, N.Y., and was a standout high school basketball player at Far Rockaway High before spending a year at the powerhouse prep school Oak Hill Academy, which has produced the likes of Jerry Stackhouse, Rajon Rondo and Carmelo Anthony. He played AAU with Young, UConn’s associate head coach, also from Queens, and started playing in college at Wake Forest and then UCF and finally Briar Cliff University, an NAIA program in Iowa.

He eventually settled home and started his family with Quannette.

Steph started playing high-level AAU basketball in third grade with star prospects like Isaiah Collier (top recruit in 2023 class, now at USC), Robert Dillingham (Kentucky) and Bronny James. The competition allowed Stacey to gauge the potential of his son, who had big feet and learned how to play without speed and athleticism.

As he got into middle school, Steph was waking up for speed and agility drills with his dad at 5:30 a.m. and they would work out again after classes were over. He was running hills and jumping rope and doing 100 push-ups per day – all of which bore fruit in the form of highlight-reel dunks and physically dominating defense on the opponent’s best player.

“Those things were taking place in fifth grade,” Stacey said. “And it wasn’t a thing where I had to go and wake him up each morning.”

Stacey started coaching Steph’s AAU team when he was in sixth grade.

“During that time he kind of transitioned less as a dad, (more) as a coach,” Steph said. “He coached me just as hard as anybody else on the team, so to know that I had that in my corner and then my dad as a supporter on the back end, that was something that I asked for and I wanted.”

Literally.

There were a number of AAU teams that reached out after that sixth-grade year, trying to get Steph to come play for them. Stacey, recognizing how hard he was on his son, entertained the idea and left the choice up to him.

“He asked me, ‘Why won’t you coach me again?’” Stacey said. “And I knew right then he wasn’t going to run from coaching, that he was going to be fine. That was a big turning point for him.”

Stephon Castle playing in high school at Newton
Newton’s Stephon Castle #2 in action against IMG Academy during a high school basketball game at the Hoophall Classic, Saturday, January 14, 2023, in Springfield, MA. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

 

Earn it

Charlemagne Gibbons remembers seeing Castle’s big frame and his big feet as he finished up his eighth grade year and got ready to join the varsity team as a freshman at Newton High in his hometown Covington, Georgia. It was clear from the first workout in June that Castle, who was known to be a good player around the area, was serious about the sport and had a real chance to be great.

But he’s always had to earn it.

Before he was a McDonald’s All-American as a senior at Newton, Castle came off the bench and was willing to play out of position – whatever he could to impact the game.

“It’s funny, I coached him for four years and he didn’t start a game as a freshman and I never had a meeting with his parents not one single time about his playing time, about his role, not one time,” Gibbons said. “And he hasn’t always been the guy. He earned his way and I also think that’s also a tribute to why he’s a really unique and special player, because his family doesn’t give him outs.”

Thanks to his father’s coaching and his mother’s care, their mutual values of hard work and humility, Castle never grew an ego even as he started being idolized in his area. By midnight on June 16 after his sophomore year, when coaches could start contacting recruits by phone, Castle was getting calls from all over.

He showed up at practice the next morning with a certain glow in his expression that signaled to Gibbons that it was starting to get real. All of the hard work was going to pay off.

“So many people were able to see him just be this regular kid and be coached like everybody else,” Gibbons said. “He became one of the best players in the country and was never arrogant, never hard to deal with and I think that’s just how he is as a person.”

UConn's Stephon Castle passes to UConn's Solomon Ball (1) during the Blue White Night open practice in Storrs Conn., Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. (Jessica Hill/Special to the Courant)
UConn’s Stephon Castle passes to UConn’s Solomon Ball (1) during the Blue White Night open practice in Storrs Conn., Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. (Jessica Hill/Special to the Courant)

 

A different kind of five-star

Stacey Castle would never call somebody he knew for a favor regarding his son’s recruitment.

“I always told him, ‘If you do what you’re supposed to do, then they’ll come,’” he said.

Kimani Young had seen clips of Steph that Stacey posted to social media, but the old friends never talked about him in terms of recruiting. Until one day, Young gave Stacey a call.

“‘I heard you have a son who’s pretty good,’” Stacey remembers Young saying over the phone.

“I said, ‘I don’t know, he’s alright. Come check him out and tell me,’” Stacey said. “He came and he loved him and the rest was kind of history.”

Castle committed in November, 2021, less than two weeks after his official visit. Two years later, he was watching UConn run through the NCAA Tournament, imagining himself on the court playing in the system as the Huskies dominated every one of their opponents.

“I think all of those things, even though he was in Georgia, put him in Storrs before he was actually in Storrs,” Gibbons said.

When he was actually in Storrs, in June, Castle became the only five-star recruit on the UConn roster, and had already been mocked as a potential first round NBA Draft pick.

“What we talked to Steph and his family about was, this thing’s gonna be about winning. It’s gonna be about teaching you what it takes to be successful, the work ethic, the commitment, we’re gonna teach you how to be a winner, potentially how to be a champion, and then all of those other NBA things and opportunities for you, NIL, all these other things, will come in your direction,” Hurley said.

“His parents aren’t fans. They hold him accountable and responsible to have an elite work ethic and be coachable and not think that the world spins around him at 17, 18 years old. We knew what we were getting, and NBA teams, they salivate over him.”

UConn's Stephon Castle, left, guards Stonehill's Pano Pavlidis in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn’s Stephon Castle, left, guards Stonehill’s Pano Pavlidis in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Parents, not fans

Castle knew what he was getting into when he got to Storrs, and so did his parents.

“He had been called just about every name in the book by the time Danny got him so he was prepared, but it’s something that he gravitated to,” Stacey said. “He wanted to be coached, he didn’t want to be pampered or just allowed to do whatever on the court because he understood that wouldn’t make him better.”

Castle’s start at UConn was very similar to his first year of varsity hoops. He just wanted to contribute to the team, impact winning, whether he got 27 minutes a game or 15. He was willing to be versatile, to play out of position when he was asked. His frame and defensive ability boosted the Huskies when star center Donovan Clingan went down and he had to spend time in the front court and, since Clingan’s been back, the team’s defense is one of the best in the country.

“Just trying to keep my head down, keep working and knowing that my time will come was really what stuck in the back of my head throughout my whole career,” Castle said.

Very early on, his UConn teammates knew he wasn’t like any other five-star recruit.

Tristen Newton’s first impression was that basketball is his life, “Like, actually his life. He focuses on basketball all the time,” he said.

“He’s humble,” said Alex Karaban, his shooting partner in practice. “Most five-stars, I’d say they listen to the outside noise and think too far ahead. Steph, he takes the coaching perfectly, he’s listened to us, he has no ego at all and he’s really different compared to any other five-star I’ve been around and that’s what makes him so special.”

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