College Sports

The most exciting basketball player in the area? Look beyond UNC, Duke and NC State.

Duke has Grayson Allen and any one of four freshmen. North Carolina has Joel Berry and Theo Pinson. N.C. State has Abdul-Malik Abu. Playing in the shadows of these ACC high-profile players might be the most exciting performer in the area.

Meet Chris Clemons, Campbell’s 5-9, 180-pound junior point guard and the nation’s leading returning scorer. Clemons began his season with a 39-point, seven-rebound, four-assist performance at Penn State. He was averaging 27.7 points per game for the Camels (2-2).

Clemons averaged 25.1 points a game a season ago, including a Big South Tournament-record 51 he rang up in a semifinal win over UNC Asheville. He scored a Campbell single-season record 904 points last season, and after last Monday’s 27-point output (in 20 minutes) against Columbia International, Clemons has hit double figures in 53 consecutive games.

Of the preseason Big South Conference player of the year, Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan says Clemons is “hard-wired to score in his DNA.”

Beyond the scoring, it is Clemons’ overall game that should improve this season after he placed his name in the NBA draft last summer and attended Boston and Denver pre-draft camps. Following the Celtics workout, Boston GM Danny Ainge offered private pointers on how Clemons could elevate his game from “good to great” in much the same way 5-9 Cleveland guard Isiah Thomas did, according to McGeehan.

“I would anticipate that there will be growth this year,” McGeehan says. “He could be more efficient, better assist-to-turnover (ratio), better shooting percentage, more steals. I don’t know if the scoring will drop a little bit or go up, but if he plays right it could improve to 30 points a game.”

What makes Clemons so electrifying are the different ways he can score despite his stature. He is a career 36 percent shooter on 3-pointers, and he can attack the basket thanks to a spectacular 44-inch vertical leap. (Think David Thompson).

He has no fear.

“I do the same things everybody else does who are taller than me,” Clemons says. “So, it’s not really a handicap to be 5-9. I can still go in the lane and finish, and do the other stuff everybody else can do.”

Clemons said he developed doughtiness by challenging his 6-2 older brother, Carlee, and his 6-4 father, Carlyton, in the driveway of their north Raleigh home. Chris was an all-state performer at Millbrook High where he first sent the home crowd into a frenzy with a dunk during his junior season against Enloe.

Chris Clemons (3) breaks down the lane for a dunk for Milbrook as Seventy-First's Joshua Bryant (22) watches the play. Dean Strickland, OD

Even so, Clemons was largely overlooked by college scouts. Besides Campbell, only UNC Greensboro and Gardner-Webb offered scholarships.

No school came close to matching the attention Campbell gave Clemons. Campbell assistant coach Peter Thomas first spotted Clemons during his junior year of high school. Thomas then constantly pushed Clemons’ name in front of McGeehan before the next summer’s AAU circuit began.

McGeehan first saw Clemons at a Myrtle Beach, S.C., tournament. He was convinced Clemons could be a star for his team, and Campbell made him its top recruiting target. For the remainder of the summer, the entire four-man Campbell coaching staff attended every one of Clemons’ games.

On his official recruiting visit, McGeehan said he made no promises to Clemons. But he did offer a look at Clemons’ future with the Fighting Camels.

“I believe that when you leave Campbell, you will be the all-time leading scorer, your jersey will hang in the rafters, we will cut down some nets and we will go to some NCAA tournaments,” McGeehan recalls telling Clemons.

Clemons needs 694 points this season to become the program’s all-time leading scorer. Campbell returns four starters from a team that reached the Big South championship game a season ago and came within a step of playing in the NCAA tournament.

With another season like the last, Clemons No. 3 jersey just might find its way into Campbell’s Gore Arena rafters.