The lights lead the way on this exurban pilgrimage to see The One That Really Got Away, the nearest of the local players overlooked by the Triangle ACC schools and unquestionably the most explosive.
First, they’re red: The steady stream of stoplights and brake lights through Garner and into Fuquay-Varina. Then it’s the orange glare of the setting sun that dips below the horizon at the precise moment in time as if to commemorate crossing the Harnett County line. The relatively bright street lights of downtown Angier are the final landmark before that stretch of meandering country road through what used to be tobacco fields tumbles out, almost by accident, onto the north end of the Campbell campus.
It’s worth the trip, an hour and change through rush-hour traffic, your mileage may vary, to see Chris Clemons. It’s the same drive he made after he was deemed too small by ACC schools out of Millbrook but just right by Campbell – 69 inches tall with mascot-suit muscles and leaf-spring legs and mix-tape handles and SportsCenter-worthy dunks and NBA shooting range.
“I feel like if you leave me open, I’m going to make it, wherever that is,” Clemons said.
Clemons shook off a nasty-looking ankle injury in a matter of minutes Thursday night against UNC Asheville to utilize his entire arsenal of shakes and fakes and long-range bombs, even if he decided against a breakaway dunk at the first-half buzzer and missed the lay-in instead. Averaging 24.4 points, scoring double figures in 85 out of 86 career games and 71 straight, Clemons can do it all, except grow 4 inches overnight.
He couldn’t do quite enough Thursday in a 64-57 loss; he had 23 points but was outscored by Asheville’s MaCio Teague with 36. Clemons missed four shots during the 16-0 Asheville run that turned the game around, but his baskets started and ended it.
“It’s different when you feel good about holding a guy to 23, but that’s under his average,” Asheville coach Nick McDevitt said. “He’s just that kind of a player. He puts a lot of pressure on the guy that’s guarding him, but also your team. They are never out of a game, because of him. He can put up 40, 50 – put up 15 in two or three minutes. He’s just that explosive. He keeps you on your toes.”
Among the current diaspora of Triangle basketball talent, a starting five stands out: Clemons; Broughton’s Jerome Robinson at Boston College and Devonte Graham at Kansas; Clayton’s Gary Clark at Cincinnati; Knightdale’s Ronshad Shabazz, averaging 19 points per game at Appalachian State. Throw in Havelock’s Ky Bowman as a Triangle connection, too, since he was a UNC football recruit before uniting with Robinson at BC to form one of the ACC’s most productive backcourts.
Clemons would be perhaps the most desired grad transfer in college basketball if he had his degree, but the junior said he still has at least a semester to go after this one. He’s come a long way, although it’s easy to understand how he slipped through the ACC net out of Millbrook. Even in the Big South, he’s almost always the smallest player on the court, but he’s always the highest leaper and most dangerous player.
“ESPN highlights come and go,” Clemons said. “It’s great while it lasts, but at the same time, I’m just playing my game. I’m not forcing anything. I’m not shooting anything I don’t usually shoot.”
Coming off one of the worst games of his career – 11 points in a loss at Winthrop on 5-for-12 shooting, missing all seven 3-pointers he took – Clemons was still scoreless seven minutes into the game when he fell awkwardly on his left ankle after a wild drive into the lane. A few fans harangued the officials, but most were too anxious to say anything while Clemons remained down under the basket for a few long minutes. He finally walked off gingerly, and while Clemons only missed 3:56 of game time, he was visibly and unusually tentative for about 10 minutes when he returned.
And then he recovered, and there was no question about when. He took Kevin Vannatta right, then left, then right again, turning the corner and dropping in a floater. Then he launched a 27-footer from the left wing and then hit from 25 feet in Vannatta’s face. After that, poor Vannatta bit on a shot-fake 30 feet from the basket, and who could blame him? But Asheville’s 1-3-1 trap was effective both keeping the ball out of Clemons’ hands and stopping him from driving.
“You just go out there and try and compete and make his night tough,” Vannatta said. “But he’s a good enough player that you can do everything right on D and he’s still going to bury a shot. You’ve got to have a short memory guarding him.”
Even on a night like this when nothing seems to go smoothly, the points keep piling up. Nine days ago, Clemons and Marcus Burk became the first teammates in NCAA history to both hit 10 3-pointers in a win at Liberty. Clemons’ 42 points that night broke three more school records, in addition to the many he already holds. His final basket Thursday, a tossed-up 30-footer with a few seconds left, moved him into a tie for the No. 2 spot in school history, 206 short of the record.
Afterward, Clemons was moving slowly, like someone twice his age after a long afternoon at the Y. The ankle? “It’s everything, man,” he said. Clemons takes a beating, driving to the basket against bigger, taller players. But he gets back up and does it again. And again.
“He’s kind of superhuman in a lot of ways, physically,” Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan said. “He plays so hard. I think if he got all the calls when he drove in there, I think he’d feel a lot healthier.”
There aren’t many chances left to see Clemons this year: Campbell only has three more home games in Clemons’ junior season, plus Big South tournament games if things fall the Camels’ way.
Clemons may not play under the bright lights of the ACC, but if you want to make the pilgrimage, the lights will lead your way. Even with Clemons at half-speed, it’s worth the trip.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock