By Steven Eggert
Danny Stewart came to Rider as a freshman with a tremendous leaping ability that could help him win any jump ball, and throw down monstrous, rim-rattling dunks. He could use his athleticism to get by at first, but there were a lot of skills that he lacked.
At Neumann-Goretti High School in Philadelphia, Stewart was able to lead the team to multiple championships and a No. 4 national ranking. He was also named second team all-Pennsylvania.
Despite the accolades, he barely took jump shots, couldn’t find consistency at the free throw line, and didn’t play much outside the post.
“I didn’t really have to shoot the ball much,” Stewart said. “I had great guards behind me and all I had to do was go into the low post and they’d lob it to me. I was taller than most people so I was able to use my athleticism.”
Fast forward to the 2013-14 season and Stewart is one of the Broncs’ premier players and leaders. He is second on the team with 15 ppg and first with 6.1 rpg, and has a newfound rhythm from beyond the arc.
When being recruited, his raw athletic tools were something that was admired by current Head Coach Kevin Baggett. When Stewart was a freshman, Baggett was an assistant coach to former Head Coach Tommy Dempsey.
Though Stewart was a project skill-wise, there was potential to become an All-MAAC talent.
“I saw a kid that, when it was all said and done, after we had a chance to develop him, was going to be a really good player,” Baggett said. “There were a lot of things he could do to score around the basket, which he has already done here, but then it was just the fundamental things like dribbling and shooting that he needed to work on.”
His rude awakening to the collegiate level came when he was a freshman and learned the game under then senior Mike Ringgold, ’11, who was able to match up with Stewart because they were both athletic forwards, similarly built.
Ringgold’s big difference was that he knew all of the young player’s tendencies, and would take advantage of his lack of experience.
“He used to get me all the time in practice,” Stewart said. “I would rush myself and he would pump fake on me. When you come in as a freshman, you don’t know much, but playing next to him, it really helped me out.”
Assistant Coach John Griffin worked with Stewart constantly. Before practices began, he and Stewart would go onto the court and work on jump shots, free throws, passing and dribbling.
In the offseason, Griffin would give Stewart tips and drills to work on when playing pickup games in the summer or working out in the gym.
“I would work out with him often,” Stewart said. “After last year, he wanted to adjust my jump shot, and he showed me drills to make my wrist stronger for shooting and dribbling. Then, after going home and working out, he gave me even more drills. It was different, but helped me out a lot.”
Griffin worked with a lot of players in the past on what he calls “guard skills,” but Stewart was one of a few players who took his advice and ran with it.
“There’s little things to work on,” Griffin said. “I gave him dribbling, two-ball drills and a lot to think about. Some people say they’ll work hard and they don’t. He did, so give him credit. He takes pride in his skills now.”
Stewart’s career has been all about learning what his strengths and weaknesses are. He saved the best for last by posting career highs in points per game, 3-point shooting, and his success rate from the free-throw line.
From his freshman to junior seasons, he made only one 3-pointer. His percentages at the free-throw line in those years read 54%, 66% and then 71% his junior year.
This season, he’s made 24 of his 61 threes and has been able to utilize his athletic abilities on the perimeter. He’s also been able to make free-throws at a team-high 85%.
Additionally, he’s averaging a career high 15 ppg as opposed to a 9.6 in his first three seasons. Stewart believes that a lot of the improvements come from his added versatility when scoring.
“I used to dunk the ball a lot,” Stewart said about his early years at Rider. “I would just go and attack the rim. Each year, I tried to add something different. Now my senior year, I’m able to stretch the floor, take the three, take people off the dribble. Now if I get fouled, I can make free throws.”
Overall, Stewart looks back upon his first couple of years as a Bronc and laughs at the player that he used to be. He often reminisces with fellow seniors Anthony Myles and Tommy Pereira about how much of a transformation each player has made.
“I talk with them all of the time,” Stewart said. “Anthony and I were talking just a couple days ago about how we used to come in as freshmen and just dunk the basketball. Now we really pick and choose our spots, and we’re doing things that we never thought we’d be doing at this point of our careers.”