Last month, Winthrop signed two men’s basketball recruits from South Carolina for the first time in over two decades.
One of them terrorized South Pointe Jan. 15.
Russell Jones Jr. isn’t very tall. He’s 5-foot-6.
But his upper arms are thick and puffy calves reveal power in his legs. And he has the same tenacious spirit you find in these diminutive ball players who exist in a sport geared toward much bigger people.
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“He’s tiny but he’s a bulldog. Strong, he can shoot it, he’s quicker than lightning,” said Jones’ coach at Westwood High School, Ty Baumgardner. “He fits perfectly in that league and for what Winthrop and coach (Pat) Kelsey want to do. They’re gonna love him.”
Winthrop was the only in-state school that recruited Jones, who is averaging 18 points, five assists and four steals per game for Westwood. Southeastern Louisiana, Longwood, North Carolina A&T and some Division II schools also offered Jones scholarships.
“It was a little shocking to me,” Baumgardner said.
“He’s been told his whole life, like Keon Johnson, that he was too little, but he is tough as nails,” said Kelsey. “I think he’s the best point guard in the state of South Carolina right now. More importantly, he thinks he is.”
For various reasons, the last three Winthrop head coaches -- Kelsey, Randy Peele and Gregg Marshall -- have sparingly taken scholarship players from within the Palmetto State during the last two decades. Perhaps understanding that, Jones is thrilled to play his college ball just 50 minutes from home. His parents will probably be at every home game. Russell Jones Sr. kept Westwood’s scorebook Tuesday night at South Pointe.
“The family feel of Winthrop is what sold me,” Jones Jr. said. “And I know that the tradition at Winthrop is great. Everything sold me.”
The comparisons to Johnson, a 5-foot-6 scoring machine who left Winthrop as the school’s all-time leading scorer, are inevitable. But Baumgardner thinks Jones’ skill-set is more similar to a very short, well-rounded opposing player Winthrop fans will remember well: Charleston Southern’s Saah Nimley. Nimley could do it all: pass, score, defend and lead his team. He was the 2015 Big South player of the year.
“Everybody who knows both of them, they compare both of them to each other,” said Baumgardner.
Tuesday night, Jones was positioned at the top of Westwood’s full-court press, his defensive stance putting him eye level with the opponent’s dribble. He leads the Redhawks in steals and generates big spurts of offense, and momentum for his team, from pilfering the ball.
“He’s a gnat,” said Baumgardner. “He’s everywhere.”
Jones is also very capable offensively. He’s got a sweet shooting stroke and uses his low leverage and dribble protection to penetrate into the lane with ease, either finishing with a layup attempt or a kick-out to a teammate. And trying to press him? Forget it.
Phenom Hoops Report’s Jamie Shaw said Jones is a “high character young man who will end up being the poster boy for Winthrop Basketball.” And Bryan Brown, who coaches Jones in AAU ball, said in a Winthrop press release that “Russell has always played with a chip on his shoulder and he can’t wait to showcase his talent at the next level as a Winthrop Eagle.”
Jones sounds amazing, so what prevented bigger colleges from recruiting him?
Simple. His height.
“No question, in my opinion,” said Baumgardner. “If he’s 6-foot, to 6-2, he’s playing in the SEC, ACC.”
Jones is one cornerstone of a potential-packed recruiting class that includes a second South Carolina product, 6-foot-7 Chase Claxton, out of Legacy Charter School in Greenville. Claxton’s dad is a 7-foot former Georgia Bulldogs player, and his brother, Nicolas, is a current UGA player that may have NBA potential.
Jones and Claxton played AAU basketball together this past summer and the future Winthrop point guard is excited to reunite with Claxton.
“Chase is a dog, man, he can flat out do everything, I won’t lie to you,” Jones said, grinning. “Dribble, shoot, dunk, just getting a real glue guy. He’s gonna be great to the community and the school.”
The last time Winthrop signed this many South Carolina products in the same class was 15 years ago. Headed into the 2003-04 season, Gregg Marshall signed Torrell Martin from Columbia, S.C., Brandon Key, a junior college transfer from Aiken, and Alex Spotts, a transfer from Rice who played high school ball at Lexington.
But only Martin was a high school senior in South Carolina at that time. You have to go back even farther to find the last time Winthrop signed two high school players from South Carolina in the same recruiting class. In 1996, Dan Kenney brought in Juontonio Pinckney, from Seabrook Island, S.C., and Rob Wallace, from nearby Clover.
There have been about a dozen South Carolina-based Winthrop players in the years since, though the majority were walk-ons. Under Kelsey, Winthrop has tapped into overseas recruiting with great success in the last four years.
In addition to Claxton and Jones, Winthrop signed powerfully built 6-foot-5 forward Jamal King from eastern North Carolina and 6-foot-3 Josh Corbin, a sharpshooter from Ohio that comes from the same AAU program that produced Keon Johnson.