Winthrop University junior Keon Johnson has had such a good men’s basketball season for the Eagles that it begs the question: Is he one of the best players in the country under 5-foot-9?
Johnson is listed at 5-foot-7, but he’s probably two inches shorter than that.
“I would say, honestly, probably 5-foot-5, or 5-foot-6, and I’m probably giving him a little bit,” said J.T. Reese, Johnson’s coach at Mansfield Senior High School in Ohio. “Five-5 looks a little weird on the program, so I understood why they did that.”
Whether he stands 65 or 67 inches tall, Johnson has flourished on all basketball courts he’s encountered. Be it Johns Park or the Friendly House gym back in Mansfield, the Winthrop Coliseum, or any of the ACC or SEC courts the Eagles visit each year, Johnson has amazed crowds with his speed, toughness and skill.
If Johnson finishes the season averaging more than 20 points per contest, he’ll become the first Winthrop player since Fred McKinnon (1985-86) to do so. If he gets one more 30-point game, he’ll break Torrell Martin’s record for 30-point games in a season (3), and he already topped 1,000 career points earlier this season. And Johnson’s current run of 20 straight games in double-figure scoring is the best such streak in the Big South Conference.
“You saw something special in him,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “I knew he had a chance to be a really good player. What makes him really good is just the chip on his shoulder. He’s been doubted his whole life because of his diminutive stature and he’s probably always had to overcome that since the time he was in grammar school.”
There are 58 players in NCAA Division I basketball that are 5-foot-9 or smaller who play at least 2 percent of the available minutes.
Data was taken from KenPom.com, the advanced college basketball statistics website that has information on over 2,200 Division I players who hit that threshold, playing at least 2 percent of their teams’ total game minutes. The 5-foot-9 and shorter guys make up 2.6 percent of the players included in KenPom.com’s database, a figure that puts their existence – let alone their accomplishments – in Division I basketball in stark relief.
The top-scoring players in NCAA Division I shorter than 5-foot-9:
Basketball features tall athletes, but there are players across the country such as Johnson who scoff at that. Oakland University’s Kahlil Felder has done more than any player the past two seasons to discredit the assertion.
The 5-foot-9 guard from Detroit is one of the best players in the country of any size.
Felder leads the nation in assists (8.7 per game as of Jan. 13) and is third in scoring (25.8 points per game). He was a Mid-Major All-American last season, a finalist for the Lou Henson Award, given to the best mid-major player in the country, and has continued his sizzling play into this season, scoring 37 points against Michigan State and 38 against Washington in back-to-back games in December.
Monmouth, of the Metro Atlantic Conference, has had an excellent season, beating UCLA, Notre Dame, Georgetown and Rutgers. Justin Robinson, the team’s 5-foot-8 point guard, is a huge reason why. He’s averaging 20.1 points per outing while playing over 80 percent of the time for the Hawks.
Kennesaw State’s Yonel Brown is another workhorse, leading the nation in percentage of minutes played (96.1), while Mount St. Mary’s has an impressive sophomore in 5-foot-5 jitterbug Junior Robinson, averaging 11 points per game.
Fans at Winthrop Coliseum on Dec. 31 were treated to a shootout between Johnson – 32 points, 27 of which came in the second half – and Campbell’s 5-foot-9 freshman Chris Clemons, who poured in 30 in the Camels’ win. Clemons is averaging close to 17 points per game.
“Usually, those kinds of guys have grown up with the ball in their hands,” said Campbell coach Kevin McGeehan. “They sort of figure them out based on size early, so the experience of having the ball in your hands and making decisions your whole life lends itself usually to being a really good basketball player. I think that’s the foundation of what a guy like Chris (Clemons) or Keon has.”
Where are they found?
Most of the little guys land in the mid- and low-major conferences.
The Southwestern Athletic Conference (90 percent) and the Atlantic Sun Conference (87.5 percent) had the highest percentages of teams with at least one player under 6 feet. The Colonial Athletic Conference had no teams with a player shorter than 6 feet, and the ACC had only two teams out of 15.
Most of the 5-foot-9 and shorter guys included in this story never got a recruiting sniff from power conference schools. Wydell Henry coached Kahlil Felder in high school, and he told MichiganPreps.com after Felder’s huge game against Michigan State that the Spartans never even considered Felder because of his stature. Monmouth coach King Rice told USA Today he had very little competition recruiting Justin Robinson.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Well, he’s so small. He’s so small. I don’t know if he can play point. I don’t know if he can do this,’” Rice told USA Today’s Nicole Auerbach. “I just kept watching this kid outplay everybody.”
That’s how guys such as Felder, Robinson and Johnson land at schools like Oakland, Monmouth and Winthrop.
An analysis of website data shows the average height of the top offensive players in Division I has fluctuated only slightly between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5 over the last decade or so. The average height for top 100 players who were on the court at least 40 percent of the time during this season was 6-foot-5.6; in 2007 that average was 6-foot-4.6.
Kelsey knew Johnson could score coming out of high school, but anything else would have required a crystal ball.
“It’s a little bit of a crapshoot sometimes,” Kelsey said. “Sometimes you’ve got to roll the dice until you get lucky, and we sure got lucky because (Keon’s) a phenomenal offensive player.”
Finding the right school is maybe more important for undersized players. Not every coach appreciates the little guys.
“Keon’s a little bit smaller than small, so the fit has to be perfect,” said Reese, who has known Johnson since he was a kid. “Kelsey down there, he’s not a small guy but he’s short and him being a fiery guy and understanding the competitive nature that he has – same thing with Keon – I thought it’d be a great fit. And it seems to be working out pretty well.”
Little guys generally have to play the game differently.
Many of them are very good shooters. Johnson, for example, shoots a very high, arching shot, one that he lobs over outstretched defensive arms with a pump of both legs. Johnson, a career 41 percent 3-point shooter at Winthrop, uses his shooting to set up his ground game, which makes him one of the most dangerous scorers among little guys.
Top 3-point shooting players 5-foot-9 and shorter:
NCAA basketball’s shorter players have to turn their primary disadvantage into an advantage, something Johnson does with his quickness.
“When you pick him up so deep, he’s a jet with a burst of speed and that’s why his ability to get around people, put fouls on people, his ability to score at the rim makes him so dangerous,” said Kelsey.
Tighter officiating of hand-checks have helped Johnson get to the foul line more often, where he’s a career 85 percent shooter. He’s drawing an average of 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes, 81st best in the country (out of all those thousands of players), and the former high school football player isn’t scared of crashing into the lane to score at the rim either.
“He can get a bucket in a lot of different ways,” teammate Jimmy Gavin said after Johnson surpassed the 1,000-point mark for his career against Rio Grande on Dec. 28. “He’s got a lot left this season, and he’s got a lot left to prove.”
Therein lies the crux with this subset of college basketball players: Their small statures provide them with a never-ending source of motivation. McGeehan described this type of thinking: “Everybody else thinks it’s a big deal, so let me show them it’s not a big deal.”
That’s when the diminutive stature of Keon Johnson becomes an advantage.
“With his speed and his strength and his confidence,” said Reese, “guys are lucky that he’s not 6 feet tall. Oh, god, it’d be fun to watch.”
Click on this link to learn more about NCAA Division I men’s basketball players 5-foot-9 and shorter.