Campbell basketball coach Kevin McGeehan had only been watching Chris Clemons play for five minutes in an AAU tournament before he texted his assistant coach.
“He’s the guy,” McGeehan wrote in that text message about three years ago.
Clemons, who was the previous season’s Cap Eight Player of the Year, was about to be a senior at Millbrook High School. He was known for his high-flying ability, and 3-point shooting range. He was a big-game player, and one of the best in the Triangle. McGeehan and his staff would make Clemons a top priority in its next recruiting class.
During Clemons’ senior year, McGeehan often sent his whole staff to watch the guard’s games.
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“You’re going to be the all-time leading scorer in Campbell’s history, and they’re going to retire your uniform,” McGeehan told Clemons, during a home visit.
Clemons, now a sophomore guard at Campbell, is well on his way. He averages 25 points per game, third best in the country. He scored 39 points in Campbell’s 98-79 win over Houston Baptist in the first round of the CIT on Tuesday. The Camels (18-17) will host UT Martin (22-12) at 7 p.m. on Monday in the tournament’s second round.
Earlier this month, Clemons scored 51 points to help the Camels beat UNC-Asheville, 81-79, in a Big South tournament game. The next night he scored 33 in a 66-50 win over Radford. Give him too much space, and he’ll drain a 3-pointer on you. Play him too close, and he’ll dribble right by you. There isn’t much Clemons’ opponents can do – except hope he has a bad game.
“I’m no sage or anything,” McGeehan said. “I just had complete confidence in what he could do and we would put him in a position to do that.”
Despite everything he can do on the court, Clemons, who’s 5-9 and 185 pounds, wasn’t recruited by top schools because of his size. He’s had to prove himself, even as coaches didn’t give him much of a chance.
That’s why he chose Campbell.
“Them being the first person that took that chance on me was big for me,” Clemons said. “First time talking to coach, I could tell he was confident in me. I could tell that he believed in what I was doing and that I could be great.”
In many ways, having people that have doubted him throughout his life, has helped Clemons be a better player.
Always the smallest
Clemons has had a ball in his hands ever since he was old enough to walk, his dad, Carlyton Clemons said.
“Chris used to sleep in the bed with a basketball. It’s always been his love.”
Clemons tried baseball and played football for a year, but his love for basketball always drew him back to the sport.
Clemons, who grew up in Raleigh, has an older brother and younger sister. His parents divorced and re-married when he was young. As a kid, he spent weekdays with his dad and stepmother, and weekends with his mom and stepfather.
Having an older brother to compete with, Clemons has never lacked confidence. He wanted to be like NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson. But in middle school and on his rec teams, he would come off the bench in favor of players taller than him.
“He was frustrated because he often got looked over because of his size,” Carlyton Clemons said. “Other people saw it as a crutch, but I never saw it that way.”
The elder Clemons said he’d tell his youngest son to “always do your best, work hard to be better, be confident, and believe in yourself.”
“And I think that ‘I believe’ always stuck with him,” Carlyton Clemons said.
Clemons was able to prove himself the summer after his sophomore year of high school, when his AAU coach gave him a chance to start. Clemons flourished that summer for the North Carolina Red Storm. He did the same during his junior season at Millbrook.
Always the shortest player on the court, Clemons has never had a problem going against taller competition, Carlyton Clemons said.
In the 2014 Holiday Invitational tournament at Broughton, Millbrook and Clemons played against a Kinston team that starred former Duke forward guard Brandon Ingram. Clemons outplayed Ingram.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and UNC coach Roy Williams were there to watch Ingram, who was the No. 2 recruit at the time. Ingram, who’s 6-9, finished the game with five points. Clemons finished with 37.
After that game, Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel talked to Millbrook coach Scott McInnes about Clemons, Carlyton Clemons said. But Clemons had already signed with Campbell.
Clemons holds the Millbrook record for most 3-pointers in a season (100), most points in a single season (699), most points in a game (41), and is second on the all-time scoring list (1,230), behind his former teammate, Robert Brown.
Clemons’ success has translated to the college level. He was the Big South freshman of the year last season, scoring in double figures in 29 of 30 games he played that season.
This season Clemons led Campbell on an improbable run to the Big South tournament title game, where the No. 7 seeded Camels lost to Winthrop, 76-59.
Clemons, who has a 3.6 GPA, averaged 37.6 points per game in Campbell’s three tournament games. His 51-point performance against UNC-Asheville set records at both Campbell and in the Big South and went viral on social media. He shot 18-for-32 from the field, and was 8-for-14 in 3-pointers.
This season, Clemons was named to the Big South all-conference first team and the Big South all-academic team.
Carlyton Clemons said he always knew his son would be really good, but he couldn’t envision the success he’s having.
“What he’s doing now, nah, I couldn’t see this coming,” he said. “Jumping the way he jumps. The range he has on his shot. Some of the places he pulls up, I’ll be thinking, ‘no that’s too far out Chris.’ And he drains it.”
“I’m thinking, ‘that kid came under our roof. Eating dinner every night, wrestling around on the floor.’ He’s made the most of his opportunities.”
He said he’s proud of his son.
Even after scoring 51 of his team’s 81 points against UNCA, Clemons talked after the game about how well his teammates had played and winning the game.
It’s what his father always taught him. And he hasn’t forgot his journey.
“Even through success, you’ve got to be humble,” Clemons said.
“For him, he wants other people to get the credit, which is kind of a cool thing,” McGeehan, his coach, said. “It takes somebody special to look at it that way.”
He said that’s what he admires most about the sophomore guard.
McGeehan said Clemons is the type of player that can help change the culture of a program. He said the team made the first step in the Big South conference tournament and hopes to continue it in the CIT tournament. If the Camels win Monday, they will advance to the quarterfinals.
Clemons said despite the lack of big-name schools that recruited him, he’s glad to be at Campbell.
“I love playing here,” Clemons said. “The atmosphere is great. We’re growing as a team. We’re growing as a community and I’m happy where I’m at.”
Campbell vs. UT Martin
CIT second round
When: 7 p.m., Monday
Where: Pope Convocation Center, Buies Creek