One of the best scorers in college basketball visits Rock Hill Saturday.
If Winthrop is to knock off Campbell in a game between two teams tied for second in the Big South Conference, the Eagles will have to find a way to slow down Chris Clemons, the Camels’ scoring machine. The junior dropped 42 points, including 10 3-pointers, in a win over Liberty Tuesday. The attention defenders have to pay Clemons at all times can be withering.
“He’s a phenomenal talent, an elite scorer and he’s playing with ridiculous confidence,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “The game against Liberty looked like a video game.”
Clemons is only 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds but he seems to get whatever he wants on the court. He is strong and compact and his leaping ability enables him to score at the rim against taller players. He uses the same springiness to get separation and explosion on deep 3-point shots.
There has been very little drop-off in the games following Chris Clemons’ 30-point-plus games. In the games following, he still scores nearly 23 points per game, though his 3-point percentage drops to 33.6.
Clemons had nine points against Gardner-Webb on Jan. 6, 2016, but has scored 10 or more points in every other of the 76 college basketball games he’s played. That mark includes a streak of 69 straight games, the longest active in NCAA Division I. In a rare move for a Big South player, he dipped his toe in NBA waters last offseason, working out with the Nuggets and Celtics.
“You talk to GMs and coaches. You can ask questions and see what they’re seeing from you,” Clemons said earlier this week. “And how you can help your team improve and also some things that can help you at the next level, if you make it that far. It definitely adds a little bit more confidence knowing your dreams can possibly become a reality.”
That confidence has infected the entire Campbell team. The Camels have won six out of seven games and visit Rock Hill Saturday looking to sweep the Eagles after winning the season’s first meeting in Buies Creek. Stopping Clemons feels impossible, but keeping him within the realm of normalcy will be critical as Winthrop -- gathering momentum of its own -- looks to win its sixth game in a row and stay near the top of a jumbled Big South standings.
During his junior year, Clemons has seen zone defenses -- “not for very long,” he jokes -- man-to-man with a lot of help, defenders pressing him, box-and-one, you name it. Little, if any, of that has worked. How do you stop him, or at least try to?
Note: most of the following stats come from Synergy Sports, a mind-numbingly awesome accumulation of in-depth college basketball statistics. Also important to remember: 1.00 points per possession is a roughly average offensive performance.
Defend the pick and roll
Campbell loves to use Clemons in pick and roll situations, which account for almost 26 percent of his plays, or about six times per game on average, according to Synergy Sports.
Clemons averages 0.87 points per possession as the pick and roll ball-handler. When the defense commits, by hedging a big man or switching defenders, Clemons averages just 0.75 points per possession and he turns it over nearly 30 percent of the time that happens. The key for Winthrop is to do that without picking up cheap fouls 30 feet from the basket.
“You’ve got to be on it before he catches the ball and you’ve got to be on it after he catches the ball because he’s really dangerous,” said Kelsey. “You’ve just got to be locked in.”
Clemons is dynamite in transition -- 1.308 points per possession -- and in isolation plays -- 1.243 points per possession -- the two other ways Campbell uses him most. Trying to corral him in screening situations with smart team defense might be the easiest thing to take away from his game.
Winthrop guard Adam Pickett used to get bullied in one-on-one battles with his brother, Patrick. Patrick was eight years older and liked to swat his little brother’s shots out to mid-court, sending him home crying.
“That’s really how I even got into basketball,” said Pickett. “One-on-one, it’s really what I’d say I do best, offensively, defensively, because that’s what I grew up doing.”
Pickett needs to draw on all of the lessons learned from his brother when he faces Clemons Saturday.
“He’s obviously a ridiculous scorer, really good at all three levels,” said Pickett. “He’s gonna take a lot of shots so he’s gonna get his points. So really it’s just try to contain him the best I can.”
Clemons is among the country’s best one-on-one offensive players.
Campbell loves to isolate Clemons with one defender. About 60 percent of the time those isolation plays come from straight on, where he scores a lethal 1.368 points per possession. He hit game-winning 3’s this month against High Point and Radford in one-on-one situations.
Clemons has gotten the ball in 65 isolation plays with one defender this season. Out of the small group of players with that many iso’s, Clemons is far and away the most efficient player at 1.338 points per possession. Oklahoma’s hotshot freshman Trae Young is a distant second (1.195 points per possession).
Marcus Burk certainly makes it tougher to focus on Clemons
Clemons hasn’t had to do it all offensively himself this season, a change that’s enhanced Campbell’s postseason hopes. Sophomore Marcus Burk is averaging nearly 17 points per game and has taken scoring pressure off Clemons.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Burk also hit 10 3-pointers against Liberty this week, scoring 32 points. He and Clemons became the first teammates in NCAA history to both hit 10 or more 3’s in a game.
“He’s been working so hard the past two years he’s been here and he’s finally starting to see the fruits of his labor,” said Clemons. “I’m trying to figure out a way to get him more shots out there.”
Check out Campbell’s record-setting 3-point shooting effort against Liberty from earlier this week:
Pressure Clemons, but don’t foul him
Clemons has had just four games this season with an offensive efficiency rating lower than 1.00 point per possession: losses to UNC Asheville, Gardner-Webb and UNC Wilmington, and a win over Stetson. In those four games, Clemons totaled 16 turnovers and just five assists, and didn’t shoot more than eight free throws in any of them.
Clemons has nine games this season with at least 10 free throw attempts. He’s 16th in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (7.5), per KenPom.com, and he makes 88 percent of his free throws. He actually hadn’t made more than three 3-pointers in a game in over a month before hitting 10 Tuesday night. He’s been living at the free throw line instead.
“It’s easy points,” Clemons said. “It’s something I’ve worked on throughout the summer, getting more savvy, being a little more crafty with the ball and drawing fouls.”
“He is drawing contact on his cuts, every time he drives to the basket,” said Kelsey. “He knows all the tricks of the trade. He knows all the ways to bait you into something. This is not said in any derogatory way, but he knows how to sell it. I think all really talented offensive players know how to do that.”
Clemons went to the foul line 15 times in Campbell’s last game against Winthrop, making 13. Winthrop junior Bjorn Broman has only fouled out of two games in his three years of college basketball, the Georgia game his freshman year and the Campbell game three weeks ago. Winthrop needs Broman on the floor Saturday to help Pickett.
How has Clemons performed against Winthrop?
Here’s a shocker: pretty well. Clemons averages 26 points in six previous games against the Eagles.
He scored 29 in the Camels’ Big South championship loss to Winthrop last March,the Eagles holding him to a sub-par 0.93 points per possession. But that inefficient performance could be attributed to Campbell playing its fourth game in six days. It’s reasonable to suggest Clemons wasn’t fresh.
Highlights from Winthrop’s Big South title win over Campbell last season:
He had a much better game in Campbell’s win over Winthrop earlier this season, scoring 33 points with a 1.48 offensive rating. Pickett said he and his teammates must learn from that loss.
“We know we have to come out with a lot more fire defensively,” he said. “He got going too early. He had, I think, 20 points in the first half. We can’t allow that to happen.”
Big South Conference men’s basketball standings
Big South record
at UNC Asheville