Cheering for an underdog is foundational to fans’ love of sports. We love to see the little guy excel and achieve greatness. It lets us know there is always hope that the disadvantaged can win through heart and effort. Liberty fans got a chance to cheer for our own underdog this season. His name is Stephen Burggraf, and he quickly captured the hearts of Flames loyalists.
Burggraf hails from Lynchburg, Virginia, and played with head coach Ritchie McKay’s son, Gabriel, at LCA. The six-foot, 160-pound point guard expressed interest in being a part of the program, and rather than arrogantly dismissing Burggraf, McKay gave Stephen a goal: be a manager and let’s see what happens. McKay saw potential in Stephen’s work ethic, and he was right. Stephen excelled in his role as a team manager and earned the right to walk-on. Eventually, he would be given a scholarship. This video from the team captured this special moment, beginning at the 2:48 mark:
Obviously, Stephen is a well-defined role player, but we can still walk through his numbers and then I will share my thoughts on what I appreciate most about his play style from watching him this season.
Burggraf found his minutes primarily at the end of blowout wins or losses. He played nearly half of the Flames games, and contributed primarily as a ball-handler, but showed some flashes of confident finishing around the rim.
He was only afforded 10 total shots on the season, but that is just who Stephen is. He doesn’t get into games hunting his shot, even during the last minutes of the game when shots might be less meaningful to the game’s overall story. He was primarily serving as a poised ball-handler whose primary role was to finish the game with excellence.
As fans, it’s easy to watch a game and draw conclusions about players’ skill levels without proper context. Burggraf is competing at the highest level of collegiate basketball in the country, so it suffices to say he would easily handle your average high school or low-level college player. Richie doesn’t sign low-IQ players, but Stephen demonstrates a coach’s feel and knowledge of the game. He may not possess the same athleticism as Joseph Venzant, but you can tell he is well aware of how plays are developing on offense, proper rotations on defense, and where all five positions are to be located at all times.
Stephen possesses the mind of a floor general, but at the same time is good at releasing from ball-dominate guard play, and looking for weaknesses in the defensive spacing. There were a number of times where he was exposing defenses by getting back door opportunities and making crisp cuts. Coach McKay notes that Burggraf contributes to winning basketball, and that is because he does the small, detailed actions that someone has to do to make a team excel. I’m certain his manager background influences this aspect of his play. Burggraf’s game makes the biggest difference in the culture he contributes to the team, as well as his approach to practice. He is a quintessential teammate, operating behind the scenes without need for validation or fan-fair.
Honestly, I think Stephen is underrated in some aspects. He seemed to get more comfortable with the ball when he was given playing time, and he was trustworthy within the offense. For a player who was getting what some might deem “garbage time,” he played incredibly composed and capable. He didn’t appear to shy away from the moment and was not a liability. He contributed energy, defensive effort, and helped free up the motion of the offense. I hope to see him get some more minutes in the coming season, like all our fans.