The nation's leading returning scorer may be small, but has big dream of NBA Draft
Campbell's Chris Clemons stands just 5-foot-9, but is a high-flying You Tube sensation
The odds-on favorite to lead college basketball in scoring this season plays basketball in the state of North Carolina, but he most certainly does not play for the bluebloods.
He is on the radar of NBA scouts – in fact, he had workouts with the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets this offseason when he considered entering the NBA Draft – but not a scout alive considers him a potential lottery pick. Some of his physical attributes are the envy of every basketball player, such as his 44-inch vertical and his absurd dunks.
But his most noticeable physical attribute would seem to exclude the possibility of him ever becoming a high-level basketball player – namely, that he's only 5-foot-9.
Campbell University's Chris Clemons is a basketball anomaly -- someone who is incredibly gifted in some areas despite being incredibly limited in others. And yet, after a sophomore season in which he scored 25.1 points per game -– the second most in college basketball -– for a Campbell team that was the youngest in the Big South, people might start mentioning Clemons' name in the same breath as other small point guards who have found ways to overcome their height.
Like 5-9 Nate Robinson, the 10-year NBA veteran and three-time slam dunk champ whose explosiveness is similar to Clemons'.
Or like 5-9 Isaiah Thomas of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who is the shortest player to make multiple All-Star teams and who Clemons believes has sparked a greater NBA interest for players under 6 feet.
Or like the player who Clemons idolized growing up: Allen Iverson, the shortest-ever No. 1 NBA Draft pick, whose crossover has long been Clemons' basketball holy grail, whose book Clemons read as a boy, and who played with a chip on his shoulder almost as big as the one that sits on Clemons'.
That chip came from him always being overlooked as a young player because he was always the shortest dude out there. "And he took that as a slap in the face," said Jawann Baker, one of his summer league coaches.
"He's thankful for who he is and for his height, because it made him into the type of person he is," said his father, Carlyton Clemons. "If Chris were as big as his brother, 6-2 or 6-3, he never would have worked as hard as he does. This has been his dream since he knew what the NBA was. He used to sleep with a basketball as a kid. He'd wake us up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday in summer, set the chime off on the front door going out to shoot at age 5 or 6. 'Oh Lord, Chris is up. Somebody gotta get up and be with Chris.' That's been his only love."
Yes, measuring Clemons against Robinson, Thomas or Iverson are all fantastical comparisons. Every pint-sized basketball player has those one-in-a-million dreams when they are putting up shots at the playground. But there aren't many who fly first class to Boston to work out for the Celtics, and afterwards, get tips from Celtics general manager Danny Ainge about how to turn his against-all-odds college career into an against-bigger-odds NBA career.
The advice? Get more lift on his jump shot, because a 5-9 player in the NBA needs to be able to get his jumper off against much taller players. Read the big man better when he comes off screens. Get his shot off quicker, and come into his shot instead of stepping back. Get up into the ball to really be a pest on defense. Work on his efficiency: His shooting percentage, his assist-to-turnover ratio. Subtle stuff, but important stuff, especially for someone who has the odds against him.
But the mere fact that Clemons was having this conversation with Ainge – the fact this 5-9 dynamo is even on NBA radars – is an achievement in itself. He may be five-nine, but his other attributes – a bench press of 250 pounds, a sweet shooting stroke, that ridiculous vertical – are the stuff of lottery picks.
"He's the most explosive scorer nobody knows," said The Citadel coach Duggar Baucom. "He can bust a three in your mouth from deep or dunk on your head. He could play at any level."
It's a confidence bred from a competitive streak that runs in the family. At the Clemons household, they have different old-school WWE belt for just about everything you can compete in. The family bought them at Toys R Us and dedicated each belt to a different competition: A Blackjack belt. An Uno belt. A pool belt. Even a fishing belt. "He'd walk around strutting with them belts," his father laughed. "We don't do anything just to play."
It was that confidence – plus, sure, that 44-inch vertical – that Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan saw the first time he went to see Clemons play.
"I watched him for three minutes and texted my assistant: 'This is the guy,' " McGeehan said. "We thought he could be an all-time great at our school."
He thought about that moment during last season's CIT postseason tournament, when Clemons pinned a big man's shot off the backboard, took the ball up the length of the court then dunked it himself.
"This guy is 5-9!" McGeehan said in wonder.
"I'm glad I'm 5-9," Clemons told me with his typical swagger. "I'm able to do something a lot of people can't do. When I drive I have no fear going into a 7-foot guy. I'm going to run in there and do whatever to find my way to finish. I'm confident in every shot I take."
And he takes a lot of them. When he was on the floor last season, Clemons took nearly half of Campbell's shots – 42.2 percent, according to KenPom.com. No one in college basketball took a higher percentage of his team's shots. And the only player who attempted more 3-pointers than Clemons' 332 3-point attempts was Central Michigan's Marcus Keene, another explosive, diminutive point guard and the only player to average more points per game (30.0) last season than Clemons. Keene played Summer League with the Washington Wizards before signing a contract to play professionally in Italy.
The idea of the nation's top scorer being a little dude for some team nicknamed the Fighting Camels is a nice little story, sure. It's like "Rudy." But the idea of that same little dude making it from Campbell University to the NBA? That sounds like science fiction, right? I mean, you almost certainly haven't heard of Campbell University. And that's OK, because until Clemons was recruited there he hadn't heard of the school – and it's only 29 miles from where he grew up in Raleigh.
Campbell is in Buies Creek, N.C., a small town that's in North Carolina's Research Triangle. But though it's in the orbit of Duke and North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest, it's a place that would never be confused with Tobacco Road. Campbell has made exactly one NCAA tournament, in 1992, when the Fighting Camels lost to Duke's Grant Hill and Christian Laettner. (Three games later those two would connect for one of the most iconic plays in NCAA tournament history.)
If you heard of Campbell last season, it was because of Clemons' highlight-reel dunks. Or it was because of him dropping 51 points to upset UNC-Asheville in the Big South Tournament, just the second player in two decades to score more than 50 points in a conference tournament game. The other? BYU's Jimmer Fredette, who scored 52 points vs. New Mexico in the 2011 Mountain West Conference semifinals.
If you hear of him this season, though, it may be because Clemons leads college basketball in scoring. But when I asked him if that was his goal, he told me that, honestly, it really doesn't matter.
"I just want to win a little bit more," Clemons said. "We're trying to go to the NCAA Tournament – that's the big picture. And if I have to score 30 points per game to get there, that's what I'll do."
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