Chris Clemons has had games like this before. His performance against Liberty on Jan. 23—42 points—is nothing that new for the 5’9” junior guard at Campbell. What’s different is that Clemons hasn’t had someone to share in that type of game. Along with Marcus Burk, they became the first teammates in NCAA history to each hit 10 threes. As a team, the Camels hit 23 threes.
“It’s amazing that, as great a shooter Marcus is, I don’t think he’s had a game like that,” Clemons says. “We were feeding off each other. I love to see my teammates shine, get a chance to be on ESPN, enjoy himself as much as I do.”
That depth makes Campbell—14-12—a contender to come out of the Big South to make the tournament. Leading it all is Clemons, the diminutive, but high-powered, scorer extraordinaire.
What makes Clemons different is his athleticism. Fast and poised, McGeehan appreciated how in control Clemons was. “He feels like a video game because he can do so many things,” he says.
It took Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan about one minute before deciding to make Clemons his number one recruiting target. “It was pretty evident right off the bat that he was different and special,” McGeehan says.
Clemons, who didn’t start dunking until his junior year of high school, is instant offense. Last season, he averaged 24.5 points, third-best in the country. This year, he’s at 24.8, fourth-best. Given his 5’9” frame, his high-soaring ability, and his scoring prowess, the easy comparison is Nate Robinson. Clemons has heard it before, and he appreciates it. But he doesn’t want to be defined as the mid-major version of Robinson.
“Every player their own identity,” he says. You’re not going get that until you make a name for yourself. For now, that’s fine. I’m going to make a name for myself eventually.”
That comparison kicked into high gear after Clemons went off last season. 37 against Charleston Southern wants. 36 against Radford. 39 against Houston Baptist. 51 against UNC Asheville. Campbell finished the regular season at .500, but Clemons was must-see TV, even for a mid-major.
McGeehan understands the comparison to Robinson, and extends one further to Isaiah Thomas. He believes it’s in line, and that Clemons’s skill will translate to the next level. “I feel his athleticism is on a different plane,” he says. “If that translates to on the ball defense, I think he’s going to be able do it. There was a point where people didn’t know who Isaiah Thomas or Nate Robinson was. He’s just a little bit behind on the curve. I think he’s got all the same qualities.”
Clemons declared for the draft after last season, trying to ride the momentum of the year and get his name recognized. He worked out with the Celtics and Nuggets before withdrawing, but got a sense that the NBA wasn’t so far out of reach. “[Danny] Ainge told me how I would be successful at getting my shot off, some shots that would show up for me, how it’s going to be able to translate to the NBA,” Clemons says. “That was great. I learned a lot. I’m trying to take what they’re giving me and implement it throughout practice and games. I don’t want to go too far outside of my area of expertise, to end up hurting the team. I’m taking it slow.”
This season, Clemons has been bothered by a nagging ankle injury, but he’s still put up big-time numbers. Like 39 in the season opener against Penn State. Or 32 points against the Citadel. Or, most recently, 33 against Gardner-Webb in early February. “I think I’m having a great season,” he says. “But there’s always work to do. It’s not easy in this conference.
Campbell, at 14-12 in the Big South, is tied for third place with Radford and behind UNC Asheville and Winthrop. Still, no team in the conference has the instant offense that the Camels have. And Clemons, who’s a better ball handler than given credit for, can easily carry his team in a conference tournament–like he did last year, taking an average team to the Big South final before losing to Winthrop.
There’s work to do before March hits, but Clemons is ready. And he has a message for fans that might be sleeping on him and the team.
“Everyone that comes to watch me and the team play, they haven’t been disappointed,” he says. “We play hard. They’ll never be disappointed watching us play.”