No state has a glossier tradition in men’s college basketball than North Carolina. It has produced 13 national championships.1 It is home to the sport’s fiercest rivalry: Duke vs. North Carolina. It has seen more than a hundred All-Americans and dozens of Hall of Famers cut their teeth on its courts, including Tim Duncan, Vince Carter and Michael Jordan.
You might think that the state’s all-time leading scorer is one of those all-time greats. But he’s actually a current player. He’s not a Tar Heel or a Blue Devil or even a Demon Deacon. He’s a Fighting Camel in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Far from the spotlight, Chris Clemons, a senior at Campbell University in the Big South Conference, is making college-basketball history in a state that’s long on it.
As a high schooler, Clemons was an all-state athlete in Raleigh, smack dab in the backyard of the ACC. When the power conferences overlooked him, Campbell didn’t. In fact, it sometimes brought the entire coaching staff to watch him hoop. “I told him when I was sitting in his living room that I thought he’d be the all-time leading scorer in Campbell history,” Campbell head coach Kevin McGeehan told me.
Only five players in NCAA history have scored more than Clemons has. And his 3,106 points have not come easy: Clemons is 5-foot-9, at least 4 inches shorter than each of his teammates. But that disadvantage wasn’t a problem for McGeehan. “I’ve never thought twice about his height,” he said.
|Freeman Williams||Portland State||1974-78||3,249||6’4″|
|Lionel Simmons||La Salle||1986-90||3,217||6’7″|
|Alphonso Ford||Mississippi Valley State||1989-93||3,165||6’1″|
|Harry Kelly||Texas Southern||1979-83||3,066||6’7″|
|Keydren Clark||St. Peter’s||2002-06||3,058||5’9″|
|Mike Daum||South Dakota St.||2015-19||3,006||6’9″|
|Alfredrick Hughes||Loyola Chicago||1981-85||2,914||6’5″|
|Tyler Hansbrough||North Carolina||2005-09||2,872||6’9″|
|Larry Bird||Indiana State||1976-79||2,850||6’9″|
|Kevin Bradshaw||U.S. International*||1984-91||2,804||6’6″|
|Hank Gathers||Loyola Marymount*||1985-90||2,723||6’7″|
With Clemons on the court, the Fighting Camels score 1.12 points per possession, according to Hoop Lens — or at a rate that would be among the best in the country if maintained over an entire season. When he sits, the team scores 0.84 points per possession, or at a rate that would rank around 300th if maintained. Without Clemons, the team’s effective field goal percentage drops more than 10 percentage points, and the team’s turnover percentage spikes almost 7 percentage points. As a pick-and-roll ball handler, he has scored more points this season than everyone else on the team combined, according to data provided by Synergy Sports.
This season, Clemons is scoring 30.1 points per game, tied for the second-highest mark by any player since 1992. Charles Jones in 1996-97 was the last player to average more than 30 points per game over a season, while Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene came close in 2016-17, hitting 29.97. Clemons has scored in double figures in 111 consecutive games.2
He can also take the roof off an arena. Behind a 44-inch vertical3 and sculpted physique, Clemons has made a habit of dunking on defenders. Hard. Of Campbell’s 22 dunks this season, he has eight. “It’s like, ‘You’re 5-9!?'” McGeehan said, bewildered.4
McGeehan hasn’t wasted a second of his point guard’s eligibility. Clemons has played at least 80 percent of team minutes each season on campus. As a senior, he’s taking on 93.1 percent.
Over the past three seasons, Clemons has finished no lower than seventh nationally in KenPom’s percentage of possessions used metric, which measures how many possessions a player used while on court, assigning credit or blame to the player when his actions resulted in an ended possession. He leads the country this season, absorbing 37.5 percent of the team’s possessions. “Obviously,” McGeehan noted, “he’s heavily relied upon.”
|2017-18||Trae Young||Oklahoma||Fr||38.5%||6’2″||180 lb.|
|2016-17||Ronnie Boyce||San Francisco||Sr||37.9||6’3″||158|
|2017-18||Tiwian Kendley||Morgan St.||Sr||37.8||6’5″||190|
|2016-17||Michael Weathers||Miami (Ohio)||Fr||37.5||6’2″||161|
|2018-19||Lamine Diane||Cal St. Northridge||Fr||37.1||6’7″||205|
|2016-17||Marcus Keene||Central Michigan||Jr||37.0||5’9″||175|
|2017-18||Roddy Peters||Nicholls St.||Sr||36.8||6’4″||195|
|2018-19||Ja Morant||Murray St.||So||36.2||6’3″||175|
|2018-19||Jordan Davis||Northern Colorado||Sr||36.2||6’2″||185|
|2017-18||D’Marcus Simonds||Georgia St.||So||35.8||6’3″||200|
|2017-18||Milik Yarbrough||Illinois St.||Jr||35.5||6’6″||230|
|2016-17||Tiwian Kendley||Morgan St.||Jr||35.1||6’5″||190|
Should his average hold, Clemons will finish the season with a 38.9 percent usage rate, which would give him three of the top 25 marks produced by players since 2009, the first year for which data is available.5 His career usage rate (35.9 percent) figures to edge former BYU star Jimmer Fredette for the top spot by any player over the past decade.
There have actually been plenty of undersized, high-usage players on college courts. Clemons is just relied upon much more than any of the rest — and has been since he arrived on campus. Since 2008, there have been 450 seasons that saw a player shorter than 5-foot-10 appear in 20 games and play at least 40 percent of team minutes, according to BartTorvik.com. Of that sample, Clemons is in line to finish with the first, third, fourth and 23rd highest usage rates.
Let’s remove the height restriction. Given those same qualifications, since 2008 there have been 522 seasons of a player producing a usage rate exceeding 30 percent. Of that pool, Clemons is on track to post two usage rates that rank in the top 15 and another one that ranks in the top 45.
This season, only one player6 has taken a higher share of team shots than Clemons’s 39.3 percent.7 This would be the fourth consecutive season that Clemons has finished in the top 25 in percentage of team shots taken, a feat of production that has never been matched since KenPom began tracking such metrics.8
The Fighting Camels made their only NCAA Tournament appearance in 1992, five years before Clemons was born. This season, Clemons has Campbell roaring into shape to make a run at a second, provided the team wins its conference tournament.
Which is to say: Clemons has the perennial green light to do everything. “I always had one,” Clemons said. “But I don’t remember it being like this.”
Have coaches ever told him not to shoot? “I haven’t heard that lately,” he said.
Is there anything McGeehan wouldn’t trust Clemons to do? “Probably give me a haircut.”
Clemons’s numbers are more impressive when you consider the system under which he plays. Watching him, you get the sense that he could get to the rim or drain a jump shot around 10 seconds before he actually does. McGeehan runs a hybrid version of Pete Carril’s Princeton Offense that relies on quick ball movement and constant motion. It also typically suffocates tempo, as the Princeton Offense is ostensibly designed to limit huge production by either team. Campbell has ranked outside the top 190 in average offensive possession length each season since 2013. This season, it ranks 265th in adjusted tempo. Campbell averages 68.4 possessions per 40 minutes, which is tied for 238th nationally. North Carolina, for instance, averages nearly eight more possessions per game.
Despite all of his success, Clemons may not ever reach the next level. To be sure, there have been other players under 5-foot-10 to reach the NBA: Muggsy Bogues, Earl Boykins, Calvin Murphy, Spud Webb. There have even been a few who have done it since the turn of the century: Isaiah Thomas, Kay Felder, Nate Robinson. Clemons, who has declared for the NBA draft after each of the past two seasons only to return to campus, is unlikely to join them via that route.
The irony is heavy: One of the greatest scorers of all time, in arguably the state with the richest college basketball tradition, plays just a short drive down the road from perhaps the most-talked-about college athlete of all time, for a team that packed in fewer than 2,000 fans per home game last season. The smallest guy on the court is dealt the largest offensive burden and has most of the team’s dunks. The pint-sized player with the larger-than-life impact.
“When it’s all said and done,” McGeehan said, “I’m probably going to go back and say, ‘Wow, did that really all just happen?’”