BUIES CREEK — Eleven minutes had passed in last week’s game against UNC Asheville and Campbell’s Chris Clemons, the fifth-leading scorer in all of college basketball, still hadn’t made his first basket.
Stymied by a twisted ankle that looked scarier than it was and a trapping defense effectively denying him the ball, Clemons decided to take matters in his own hands when his man gave him a little extra room off an inbounds pass.
Despite being some 28 feet from the basket, the junior guard caught the ball and shot in one fluid motion for a 3-pointer that got him off and running.
It was a shot many would consider a bad one. Then again, those who would say that probably haven’t seen Clemons play or realize how prolific a shooter he is.
“Whenever he gets the ball and crosses half court, he’s in range,” said UNCA’s Kevin Vannatta, who knows a little about the subject, having attempted to guard him for the past three seasons. “He’s talented enough that he can make shots from anywhere in tons of different ways.”
Clemons made history on Jan. 23 at Liberty when he and Marcus Burk became the first teammates ever to hit for 10 3-pointers each in the same game. Clemons went 10 of 14 from beyond the arc that night, as the Camels hit an incredible 69.7 percent of their long-range attempts in a 94-85 victory.
His shot wasn’t falling as frequently a week later at home against UNCA. But scorers usually find ways to score no matter what the circumstance, and he still ended up with 23 points — within an eyelash of his 24.4 point average.
Even on an off night, the threat of his shooting ability and range proved to be as much of a weapon as it would when everything was going in the basket.
That was illustrated late in the first half when he got Vannatta into the air on a pump fake 30 feet from the basket. He then used the extra space it bought him to create a driving lane directly to the rim.
“I’m just playing my game,” Clemons said. “I’m not forcing anything.”
At the same time, Clemons is being asked to take on a much bigger role for his team than most star players. That, combined with his fearless, attacking style, is a lot of weight to sit upon shoulders supported by only a 5-foot-9 frame.
The 2017 Big South Player of the Year regularly takes a beating, as was evident by his limp as he entered the postgame interview room following Campbell’s 65-57 loss to UNCA. He doesn’t always get rewarded for his effort with a whistle when he crashes to the floor, as he did on the play in which he injured his ankle.
But that doesn’t stop him from continuing to “just play his game.”
“He’s kind of superhuman in a lot of ways, physically,” Camels coach Kevin McGeehan said. “He plays so hard. He just goes in there aggressively and tries to make plays at the rim. Sometimes, maybe because of his size, he doesn’t (get the calls).”
Clemons’ size, or lack thereof, has been an issue since he was earning all-state honors at Millbrook High in Raleigh. Not even a one-handed dunk in which he passed the ball to himself off the backboard, a play that earned a spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 highlights, was enough to capture the interest of major college recruiters.
He received just two other scholarship offers, both from mid-majors, coming out of high school. But he has long since proven his ability to overcome his small stature by putting up big numbers for the Camels.
Clemons has scored in double figures in 86 of his 87 college games. His current streak of 72 straight is the longest in Division I.
With 26 points against High Point last Saturday, he moved into second place on his school’s all-time scoring list with 1,973 career points. He needs just 180 more to pass Jonathan Rodriguez for the record.
Though Clemons said he doesn’t get any real satisfaction from proving those who missed on him wrong with his play, he did admit that “it does feel great, if you can.”
“I’m pretty sure somebody’s thinking about it somewhere,” he said.
With Clemons only two semesters away from earning his bachelor’s degree, at least a few of those “somebodies” might be thinking about picking up the phone and asking for a second chance once this season is over.
He dismissed the idea of leaving as a graduate transfer, however, saying “I’m glad where I’m at.”
That doesn’t mean his sights aren’t set on bigger and better things once he leaves Buies Creek. Last summer, he went through the NBA’s pre-draft evaluation process to gauge his stock and get advice on areas in which he needs improvement.
He’s used the feedback to get to the free-throw line more and improve his playmaking skills. The one thing he didn’t have to worry about was his shooting. Or his range — which really is anywhere over the half-court line, if not farther.
“I feel like if you leave me open, I’m going to shoot it and I’m going to make it,” Clemons said. “So wherever that is … I’m just trying to look for my shot and be aggressive.”