Steven Cook ’17 committed early to the Princeton men’s basketball team, and a couple months after his arrival, the Tigers committed to him.
The wiry, 6-foot-5 guard with eye-opening athleticism leapt into the starting lineup midway through his freshman season. Three years later it’s hard to imagine the team without him.
“In hindsight it seems fairly obvious and I probably should have known sooner,” said head coach Mitch Henderson ’98, whose Tigers open the Ivy League season against Penn at Jadwin Gym Jan. 7. “But when he got his opportunity, he took advantage of it in every way.”
Cook was a 6-foot JV point guard running a Princeton-style offense his first two years at New Trier (Ill.) High. He verbally committed before Christmas of his junior year as he and his game were growing.
“I didn’t always enjoy it when I was short, but it was the biggest blessing I could ask for,” Cook said. “It put me in position where I was forced to develop my ball handling and shooting ability and play like a small guard. That only helped me when I hit my growth spurt.”
Cook played 13 minutes total in the first two months of his freshman year at Princeton, but after playing well in the Ivy League opener he started the next day against Dartmouth. Over the final 13 games, he averaged more than 25 minutes per game.
“The upperclassmen did an unbelievable job of trusting me and believing in me when they didn’t have to,” Cook said. “I think that went a long way in terms of my confidence and allowing me to contribute.”
After Princeton’s 7-6 start in nonconference play, Cook leads the Tigers in minutes played (30.1), shooting percentage among players with more than 25 field goal attempts (.539), three-point percentage (.519), scoring average (15.8), rebounds (4.9), and steals (21).
“I feel like I’ve made strides since last year, especially on the defensive end,” Cook said. “I’m getting used to guarding better players in big situations. At the offensive end, my teammates have done a great job of setting me up and putting me in position to be able to score.”
Cook is proudest of the stats that many don’t see – steals, deflections, and defensive stops. His well-rounded game led to All-Ivy honors his sophomore and junior seasons, and he has been Ivy Player of the Week twice.
“I think sometimes playing well all the time consistently can kind of be boring, but it’s not for me,” Henderson said. “Maybe it seems boring for others, but I love watching him play. We’ve had some really great players here that take pride in doing the little things well, and Steve’s one of them.”
Being a leader is part of that package. Cook is a captain along with Spencer Weisz ’17 and Hans Brase ’17.
“The biggest change is having to be present and being a leader every day,” said Cook, who was also a captain last year. “I wasn’t always great at that last year. It’s hard to do that every day.”
Weisz is an incredibly versatile starter as well, but the Tigers lost Brase and another starter, Henry Caruso ’17, to season-ending injuries. That cut into the Tigers experience and put more on the shoulders of Weisz and Cook, who hope to lead Princeton to its first Ivy title since 2011. This year is the first with an Ivy postseason tournament.
“The leadership and experience is still a really large part of our team, and the seniors have a big role in contributing that way,” Cook said. “I think we have everything we need.”