By the time Keon Moore hit his third straight 3-pointer during a Winthrop intrasquad scrimmage Friday, his teammates on the opposing team were getting frustrated.
“Gah dang!” one of them shouted after Moore feathered in a triple from NBA distance.
At least this year the 6-foot-5, 195-pound shooter can inflict some pain on opposing teams, instead of just his teammates. Moore, who sat out last season per NCAA rules after transferring from Division II Catawba College, was a thorn for teammates in practice, his jumpers ending drills and sending losing teammates sprinting down the court and back with a groan.
“He gets any type of space and the ball is going in,” said Winthrop senior Joab Jerome. “In practice last year you could just tell this year was gonna come for him.”
Moore has scored 20 points or more in three of his last five games, providing the Eagles with another scoring option. At 11.6 points per game, he’s one of four Winthrop players averaging between 11 and 12 per contest – Jerome, Andre Smith and Keon Johnson are the other three. In Big South play, Moore is averaging 19.7 points per game.
“Through teammates’ encouragement, I’m starting to get more comfortable game by game,” he said after Friday’s practice.
Winthrop (8-7, 2-1) needs Moore’s good form to continue Saturday in Myrtle Beach against Coastal Carolina (9-8, 2-1). With Jerome still hobbled by an ankle injury – he’s listed as questionable – Moore’s emergence has been timely.
“It’s obvious that we’re a more potent offensive team than last year,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “There’s more weapons and less people that you don’t have to guard.”
Moore is one reason why. He hails from the northeastern North Carolina town of Windsor, a hamlet of nearly 2,300 people in a county with one gymnasium and no McDonalds or Wal-Mart. The lithe shooter was barely recruited as a senior at Bertie High School, in part because he was a late arrival to organized basketball; he’d never even heard of AAU basketball until his senior year. He ended up at Catawba College where his cousin, Marvin Moore, was an assistant coach.
With Catawba, Moore was the South Atlantic Conference Freshman of the Year in 2011 and was a first team All-SAC selection as a sophomore in 2012. He scored 1,042 points in just two seasons and left the school with a scoring average over 18 a game. Moore thirsted for a more substantial challenge.
“It wasn’t something I went to Catawba thinking, I’m just gonna stay here for a year then leave,” Moore said. “But as I started to get better at other parts of my game, I started to realize, ‘hey, I could help a team out and go somewhere that was traditionally strong.”
After sitting out the 2012-13 campaign, Moore missed the first month of this season with a knee injury, but finally returned to the court in December after 22 months away from competitive action. Kelsey, a staunch proponent of Division II basketball, knew Moore could make the jump up a division.
“He’s a natural born scorer,” said Kelsey. “Really good players at the Division II level, especially at the guard position, there’s really not a huge difference between Division I. I had healthy respect for a kid that could put up those kinds of numbers at the Division II level.”
Moore’s smooth-shooting, ability to elevate over defenders and overall scoring weaponry easily fits into Division I play. Defense was another matter. As the primary scorer in high school and at Catawba, he’d never had to guard people before. As soon as Moore arrived in Rock Hill, Kelsey set about fixing that deficiency.
“There were times in practice last year where he would just get on me and just pound me, telling me ‘Keon, you gotta’ defend, you gotta’ defend,’” said Moore. “Just doing that has made me a better player. It creates opportunities on offense, and it keeps you on the floor, especially in this system.”
Recent signs have been encouraging. Moore has 12 steals in the last six games and is also averaging five boards per game in his last five outings. He still lacks on the offensive glass, but every Winthrop player could say that. Moore’s biggest contribution to the team’s defense comes from his mouth.
“He’s the best defensive talker on our team,” said Kelsey. “You talk to any defensive coach in the country, one of the hardest things to do is to get guys to communicate and talk. Good teams talk on the defensive end. It raises your level of play, you’re more engaged, you’re more locked in. He bought into that.”
Winthrop is forcing opponents to turn the ball over on 21.3 percent of their possessions, the 37th best rate in NCAA. Conversely, Coastal Carolina coughs the ball up on 22.2 percent of its team possessions, 329th in NCAA. One more factoid: the Chanticleers get the ball stolen on nearly 12 percent of their possessions; only seven teams are worse in NCAA. Moore’s long arms and passing lane instincts have led to a number of steals and easy buckets the last two weeks, something he’ll be hunting for on Saturday too.
Kelsey’s staff tracks 10 defensive categories and grade their players’ performances, and Moore is always on top of his grades, good or bad.
“He knows the 10 categories by heart and if he is deficient in an area, he wants to address it,” said Kelsey. “He goes to that coach and wants to find out ‘why did I grade out poorly in my gaps? Why was my ball-screen execution less than 70 percent?’ He pays attention to that.”
Having Moore on the floor has been a boon for a Winthrop team that sorely needed more scoring, and his teammates are thankful that opponents finally get to feel the brunt of his silky shooting touch too. Asked what Moore’s practice sniping caused last year, Jerome replied with a shake of his head: “a lot of running, a lot of running.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T