There are certain things about Steve Taylor Jr. that will never change: The infectious energy he produces in practice every day, the soft-spoken voice that shows he genuinely cares about the people around him and the ear-to-ear smile he can produce on the spot, no matter the situation, simply because he enjoys life.
But there are others that are changing for the better: The student’s pursuit of a career in broadcasting and electronic communications, the power forward who gained 20 pounds of muscle since arriving on Marquette’s campus nine months ago and the killer instinct he’s developing while finding his role on a top-15 program destined for a deep NCAA Tournament run.
The transition hasn’t been easy, arriving as a highly touted freshman coming off three straight 4A state championships at Simeon Career Academy alongside Duke-bound Jabari Parker. But with the help of a dedicated coaching staff, supportive teammates and a new-found passion for the game he loves, Taylor is making significant strides on and off the court not even he thought were possible.
“Growing up, that's the biggest part,” Taylor told CSNChicago.com in an exclusive interview. “I'm not a kid no more, so I have to change the way I act and go about things. Growing up is a big key for me here and being at Marquette has helped me grow up a lot. If I think about just today, there's no telling what tomorrow's gonna be.”
Getting past "the wall"
This past summer, Taylor arrived in Milwaukee and hit “the wall.” And he hit it hard.
After running through the Chicago Public League his junior and senior years, helping Simeon to a 63-3 record and two state titles, the top-ranked recruit in Illinois found himself overwhelmed and overmatched his first months on campus.
Two-a-day preseason workouts, not-so-subtly named “Boot Camp,” beginning as early as 4 a.m. Practices at 7:17 a.m. -- time is everything for head coach Buzz Williams and his “just today” mantra -- daily study hall sessions and open gym workouts with a collegiate team fresh off its second straight Sweet 16 appearance took its toll on the raw but talented freshman. Like all newcomers at Marquette, said assistant Brad Autry, Taylor went into a state of basketball shock.
“Everything they thought they were good at, they’re not really sure they’re good at anymore because everybody’s bigger, faster, stronger, the pace is different,” he said. “So as coaches we could see Steve’s progress, but that progress wasn’t relating to minutes on the court and that was probably his frustration.”
The minutes weren’t there -- Taylor sat behind All-Big East second-team forward Davante Gardner, redshirt junior Jamil Wilson and sophomore Juan Anderson on the depth chart -- but Taylor worked to get past the freshman wall.
He made it through Boot Camp, got behind the camera for the school’s television station (MUTV), signed in each day before study hall and made a commitment to improving on the court. The off-court work as a normal college freshman -- who received the standard phone calls from his mother, Diana Cooper, to make sure his dorm room was clean -- gave him confidence, which in turn helped him improve his play.
“Steve’s progress on the court was something that he wasn’t seeing as much as it was happening. I think he’s starting to realize, ‘Wow, I’m pretty good, and I didn’t even see it coming,’” Autry said. “And the minute Steve stepped on the court we knew he was going to be a really good player.”
Remembering his roots
On the wall outside the doorway into Marquette’s locker room stands a picture of Dwyane Wade donning his Golden Eagle uniform. The future Hall of Famer first became a household name in Milwaukee in 2003, leading his team to a Final Four after arriving three years earlier as an unknown guard from Chicago with just one scholarship offer.
Taylor isn’t lacking for motivation, but having Wade’s face staring back at him every day doesn’t hurt.
"When I think about myself, I'm from Chicago, he's from Chicago,” Taylor said. “I could make history. Go to the Final Four, something like he did."
Taylor will never forget his Chicago upbringing. He can’t.
He dons uniform No. 25 for Marquette to honor the late Benji Wilson, Simeon’s former All-American who was gunned down in 1984 on the same block where Taylor used to live. Taylor has hosted a couple of his friends from his Simeon team, and Parker -- who could have attended any Midnight Madness event in the country -- chose to watch his old teammate while wearing Taylor’s No. 15 Simeon jersey.
Taylor may have honed in his skill-set at Marquette, but the roots of his work ethic and passion live in Chicago and the hardwood floors of Simeon’s gym. And the one man who understood that more than anyone was Marquette assistant coach and Chicago native, Isaac Chew.
The first-year Marquette assistant, who recruited Taylor in 2011 as an assistant at Missouri, formed an instant connection with Taylor, taking him under his wing as a fellow Chicagoan.
“I knew how hard he wants to work and I knew that the game meant something to him. I knew he was playing for more than just himself and he shows that every day in practice,” Chew said. “It’s really important that I’m always on him about [how] he has to have success because a lot of my success will be deemed on how happy he is. We’re supposed to take care of each other. It’s like an unwritten rule.”
Taylor’s other Chicago connection began unexpectedly while visiting Marquette in 2010. It was then that he made rounds on his unofficial trips and received advice from a then-college senior: Marquette’s Jimmy Butler.
Butler told Taylor, then a junior at Simeon, that Marquette was the right place to become both a better player and person, much as it had done for him the last three seasons. Taylor said Butler’s advice was a turning point in his recruitment that led him to choose Marquette and seeing Butler’s success now as a first-round draft pick for the Bulls has pushed him to work even harder.
“It makes me feel good because [Butler], at some point, had to do the same stuff I’m doing now,” Taylor said. “So I just try my best to do everything the coaches tell me to do because look at those guys. They got to the pros, and I’m trying to get to where they are.”
“We talk all the time about a guy like Jimmy Butler, who came here and just found a way to get on the court on a really good team,” Autry said of Butler, who averaged just 5.6 points as a sophomore. “The same process you need Steve to understand, it takes a while and there are good players around you. And it’ll come, just be patient.”
Playing his part
Taylor could have chosen a different school and logged major minutes this year. He knows that. The coaching staff is there to remind him. He has averaged 9.4 minutes in 30 games, frequently coming off the bench third in Williams’ 10-man rotation. But Taylor also is aware that those schools with available playing time won’t be playing late in March like Marquette.
Part of the reason he has been on board with his smaller role is because of the camaraderie he had at Simeon, where a host of underclassmen helped Taylor and the Wolverines achieve unheralded success in Chicago. Marquette seniors Chris Otule, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett are on their last go-round, and Taylor wants them to have the same feeling he had -- going out a champion as a senior.
“[There’s] nothing like a feeling going out on top,” Taylor said. “They push me every day and they want me to realize this is their last time to win something. So I go hard every day for the seniors we have now.”
And with Taylor’s post-“wall” hiccups behind him, not only is he simply playing hard, he’s producing, too.
After averaging 8.7 minutes his first 25 games, Taylor has seen his role increase over the last month. And maybe not coincidentally, Marquette’s tallies in the win column have increased as well. The last five regular season games (4-1), Taylor played 12.8 minutes and averaged 4.8 points and 4.2 rebounds. Last Saturday, he helped Marquette clinch a share of its first Big East title in program history.
“Once he started to figure out what his niche was, once he started figuring out he does want to win, because that’s what he’s about, he began to slide into his role a lot smoother,” Chew said. “Once he started to figure out how he could fit in, he’s thrived in that role.”
Steve, the person
It’s not difficult to think about where Taylor’s basketball career will take him. The potential, the size, the work ethic and personality are all there for him to succeed, potentially -- as his teammate Wilson put it -- “one of the better players Williams has ever coached” at Marquette.
But the 6-foot-8 Taylor remains focused on the present, heeding the words of his coach to focus on “just today.” He knows the basketball will take care of itself as long as he stays focused on being the best he can be in his role, whatever that may be down the road.
What he wants just as much as a successful playing career, though, is to be remembered as a successful player off the court. His fellow Chicagoan, assistant and mentor Chew has told him that his effect will be greater once he leaves because of the impact he will have on the Marquette community.
That’s what he strives for every day.
“I want people to see me as Steve, not just ‘Steve the basketball player’ or ‘Steve, just like the rest of them.’ I just want to be different.”
He is different. Thirty-one games at Marquette have proven that.
But the smiling, passionate Taylor will always be the same old Steve -- and that will never change.