All that weight on Keon Moore’s shoulders this season feels a bit odd for a guy who moved six times before his 16th birthday and was never relied upon by any team as much as Winthrop men’s basketball needs him this season.
Moore has always been the skinny, unknown shooter, but this season he’s lifted his game in every facet to the point that he’s one of the best players in the Big South. The redshirt senior’s personality – wired to adjust to new situations and levels of competitions, and an affability that makes him a natural leader – is proving just as valuable to the Eagles and coach Pat Kelsey.
With six underclassmen playing big minutes for Winthrop, Moore’s continually evolving ability to lead is almost as important as his 18 points or 1.6 steals per game.
“This might be the biggest battle I’ve ever had to face just because everything up to this point has been statistic driven,” he said earlier this week. “But this year, I’ve got these young guys that are playing major minutes that we need to produce for us. It’s not giving them the ball, it’s giving them the confidence.”
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Thinking about the freshmen and sophomores, Moore constantly asks himself how he can ease a teammate’s mind away from the gym, or pump another one up before practice.
“I think that’s the most important part about the rest of this season,” he said.
With his varied life experience, Moore is well positioned for this task.
Moore was born in Bertie County, N.C., and moved to Connecticut with his mom when he was 2 years old. Three years later they moved back to Bertie County for a year before heading to Durham, N.C. Moore and his mom and step-father lived there until he was 13 when they moved to Whiteville, N.C. He completed the circle by returning to Bertie County as a sophomore in high school.
His basketball career finally got rolling during his junior year at Bertie County. He was an instant impact player for coach Lester Lyons. But it was uphill rock-pushing to get noticed by college recruiters in a rural area located between Rocky Mount, N.C., and the state’s Outer Banks. He joined the Elizabeth City (N.C.) Blazers AAU outfit, coached by Antonio Moore, and got his first taste of the wider basketball world.
“It did help me, especially the confidence that coach Moore gave me,” Keon Moore said. “He always gave us the David and Goliath story just because every time we went somewhere we played big AAU programs. He threw me into the fire and it just forced me to be a better player.”
Moore has used that edge to motivate himself ever since. He almost signed with a prep school, at the last moment deciding to go to Catawba College where his cousin Marvin Moore was an assistant coach. But after scoring over 1,000 points in two seasons, Keon Moore wanted to move on.
More than his Catawba dominance, it was pickup games of basketball that told him he was qualified to play at a higher level. Playing with a number of Div. I players his Catawba teammates knew from Charlotte confirmed that instinct.
“My style of play seems to just transition to every level,” said Moore. “So, I’ve never been less confident about my ability; it’s always been the exposure.”
The bouncing around throughout his childhood has equipped Moore well for life. He’s always had to adapt on the fly, and, as he sat in a comfy-looking chair in the DiGiorgio Center on Winthrop’s campus, it was clear the 22-year-old had again settled in.
Moore’s success at Winthrop has verified his self-belief, but it’s also led to a viewpoint adjustment for the perennial unknown underdog. A guy who has always had to prove himself, who always made scouts reference rosters because they didn’t know him, is in the position of being the first name on the opposing team’s defensive scouting report.
“This year, it’s like, dang,” said Moore. “Not only do you have to improve, you have to lead these young guys, enjoy your last year, and think about what’s next. It’s been a battle, but really what’s helped me is my teammates. My teammates and coach Kelsey give me so much confidence.”
Every team in the Big South knows that Moore is the man for Winthrop, and that knowledge has led to a few slow first halves for the Eagles’ star man. But to his credit, he’s emerged in the second halves of each of those games to make a difference. Teammate and roommate Derrick Henry usually has a word with Moore when he’s having first half struggles. His belief in Moore’s ability is shared throughout the Winthrop program.
“Keon’s one of the best offensive players I ever played with, one of the best offensive players I ever guarded,” said Henry.
Marvin Moore, who left basketball to become an elementary school principal, is not surprised by how his younger cousin has adapted to being the top dog.
“Keon is always prepared,” he said. “When he was at Catawba, nobody knew who he was. But the second half of the season everybody knew exactly who he was. So he was the man as a sophomore; he’ll know what it’s like to have people gunning for you.”
Winthrop’s coach feels the same way about Keon Moore, and not just about his basketball ability.
“He’s one of the elite guards in our conference,” said Kelsey. “Stevie Wonder could see his ability to score the ball. I’m really, really gonna miss coaching him. He’s a phenomenal kid and a really big part of our culture. He does things the right way.”
Sitting for 30 minutes with Moore, his receptive personality and engaging grin are front and center. Talking and being social come naturally to Moore, traits he thinks he developed during his childhood. Two different people told Kelsey after last Saturday’s win over Campbell that Moore met them for the first time at Come See Me Festival last summer and threw a football with their kids for about 30 minutes.
“That’s not normal,” said Kelsey. “But he’s that type of kid; so charismatic and so passionate.”
The Eagles are going to need all of those qualities from Moore as they claw through the Big South Conference slate. They’ll also need the shoulder chip that’s still there; the jump shooting silk he spins; and the corner threes that cap scoring rallies and bury opponents.
As college basketball enters the grittiest portion of its grind, Moore is ready to deliver.
“I want to get the most out of these last few weeks,” he said.