It was a scene Ardrey Kell coach Mike Craft said happens all of the time, but after a midweek practice in late January the Knights’ gym was totally cleared of any activity. Any activity, that is, save for one bouncing ball, the sound of two squeaking sneakers and a repetitive swish resonating through the Knights otherwise quiet gym.
As usual, the sounds were coming from Ardrey Kell junior Steven Santa Ana as he made shot after shot with the ball rarely deviating from its trajectory long enough to even graze the rim before it traveled through the net time and time again.
It’s that kind of dedication that transformed Santa Ana from an incoming freshman who was probably going to struggle to get his shot off at the high school level to one of the county’s deadliest long-range shooters.
But that’s just one of several big adjustments Santa Ana has made this season, as he’s become a better teammate, leader, shooter and all-around player, making him one of the best in the city.
Case in point took place on Jan. 17 in the Knights’ convincing win over Charlotte Catholic. The play didn’t impact the outcome of the game, necessarily, but it offered a glimpse of Santa Ana’s growth and drive.
As a Catholic player drove to his right toward the basket, Santa Ana aggressively stepped in front looking to draw a charge. It was a bang-bang play, it could’ve gone either way, but this time it didn’t go Santa Ana’s.
He got up, clapped a couple of times and offered a smile to the whistling referee. While that doesn’t seem like much, both Craft and Santa Ana know that play symbolizes growth as a teammate, a player and a leader.
“He’s really matured,” Craft said. “This is his third year playing varsity and I think that’s helped him, but he takes it all in stride. He comes out here and works hard every day. If there’s a gym he can get into he will be there – if it’s not here, it’s somewhere else. He’s always trying to get up extra shots and work on his game. He’s a coach’s
Santa Ana remade his shooting form last season to go from a stand-still set shot to a more reliable and versatile off-the-dribble jump shooter. The results worked and Santa Ana reaped the benefits of coming in under the radar on a senior-laden team ripe with leadership, as he averaged 18.4 points and 6.5 rebounds.
This season, with opposing defenses keying to stop him and just one senior – co-captain Markell Pollard – on the roster, the majority of the leadership has been up to Pollard and Santa Ana, who has blossomed in his new role.
“He’s worked hard on leadership,” Craft said. “It’s hard for a junior to be a leader. And it’s something he’s had to work on and be cognizant of because he’s not one that’s going to be very vocal because he leads by example.”
And the example that Santa Ana has set this season, both with his adjustment to more defensive pressure and with higher personal expectations, have led to a steady and productive junior season, where he’s averaging 15.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and more than two assists and two steals per game.
“I’m a smarter player this year,” Santa Ana said. “I think I make smarter and better decisions and I’ve become a better leader. Coach Craft is trying to push me to become more vocal and I’ve tried to do that. I feel like I need to get the guys together and show them. If I’m on the bench I’m going to be the loudest guy over there. If someone makes a play I want to be the first one to them telling them good job.”
Santa Ana has incorporated that kind of team-first attitude into his own game, as well.
Santa Ana would get frustrated at times last season by opposing defenders’ physicality or when calls didn’t go his way. But, as the seemingly simple play against Charlotte Catholic illustrates, that’s no longer the case, further leading the star guard’s well-rounded transformation.
“Last year I got frustrated easily, I would complain to the refs and things. This year I’ve completely settled down and don’t do that,” he said. “If teams are pushing and shoving on me, then hey, I’m going to rip it by you and go to the hole. I don’t worry about the refs anymore and it’s been great that I don’t have to worry about the emotional side of it. Now it’s just the game.”
And having Santa Ana take everything out of the equation and focus just on basketball is a huge reason the Knights are a contender in the So. Meck 8 and (through Jan. 29) 14-4 overall and 7-1 in league play.
“We came together as a team over the summer and everyone has been working really well together,” Santa Ana said. “The thing we focus on is playing team defense first. The team defense leads to transition and that leads to easy buckets. It’s paying off. In several game we’ve had four or five guys in double figures, so that’s a big deal.”
With Santa Ana leading the way, the Knights have a seven-player-deep rotation which includes juniors Devin Cooper (11.1 points, 3.3 assists per game), Collin Cooper (10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds), Josh Freund (6.6 points, 5.8 rebounds), Rhyle Scott (5.3 points, 3.4 rebounds) and Seth Davis (3.7 points, 2.4 rebounds) teaming with the lone senior, Pollard (7.3 points, five rebounds) to make it all work.
“All (seven) of our conference wins have been by double digits,” Craft said. “We have good balance and have a bunch of guys scoring each night and (Santa Ana) has been really good in conference. He’s 55 percent from the floor from (two-point range) and he shoots about 30 percent for 3. Every shot that he takes is contested and every drive he makes someone is sliding over and help is coming, so he’s had to get used to that.
“It’s a work in progress, but he’s doing a great job.”
The results are starting to pay off in the win column and on the recruiting trail. Santa Ana plays AAU ball for former Wake Forest and current Los Angeles Clipper guard Chris Paul’s CP3 team and that, combined with his balanced season, obvious talent and leadership growth are helping him generate a lot of interest.
“I get a call a week or there’s somebody new that calls all the time and it’s everything from ACC to SEC to Southern Conference and Big South schools,” Craft said. “He’s going to play somewhere and get a free education, I just don’t think he knows where yet. He’s a great kid; a great student,
Santa Ana said he’s looking for a school that harmoniously meshes the social, academic and basketball peices together and said he knows this offse and the rest of the Knights season will determine a lot toward where he ends up.
While he will play college basketball somewhere, Santa Ana said he’s more concerned with helping the Knights have success this season. And, he said, the only way to do that is for their best player to hit the gym hard – even when nobody is watching.
“I’ve got guys keying on me and I know the only way to beat them is to out-work them,” Santa Ana said. “So my thing has always been if I work harder than them, I’ll win in the end.”