Chris Clemons Goes From NCAA Record Books to NBA Summer League Stardom
LAS VEGAS -- Chris Clemons has been wearing the No. 59 jersey for the Houston Rockets at this year's NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Pointing out the uniform number for one of many guys vying for a shot at the NBA wouldn’t seem worth to point out, except for the fact that he’s listed at 5’9”.
He claims (with a chuckle) that the confluence between his number and his height is just a coincidence.
“But for your story,” Chris tells CloseUp360, “I think it'd be cool if you actually put that out there, so I'll say it is.”
Listed at 5'9", Chris Clemons is the shortest player participating in this year's NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. (Amir Ebrahimi)
That’s not the only thing that, while perhaps apparent to outside observers, hasn’t caught Chris' attention.
Like, according to the official measurements, he's the shortest player competing on the courts at Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion.
“I know I belong out here, man,” he says. “I can play with anybody that's in front of me, so I don't really think about stuff like that.”
Or, that the jump from the NCAA to (almost) the NBA is supposed to entail a massive climb in competitive difficulty—even for someone who finished third all-time in scoring at the Division I level and especially for someone who went undrafted out of a low-major school like Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
“Honestly, it's about the same,” Chris says. “Play the game the same, have the same successes.”
Or, that putting up big numbers from the get-go at Summer League—like Chris did in averaging 20.8 points and shooting 43.5 percent from three-point range during his first four games with the Rockets—is a sign that one’s game is firing on all cylinders.
“I'm just trying to get started, man,” he says. “I don't think I've played my best since I got here. So I need to work on a lot of stuff, man. But so far, it's alright.”
Chris, though, does admit that bursting out of the gate with 25 points, including seven three-point makes and an alley-oop dunk, in his first game as a pro (albeit a 113-81 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on July 6) helped him to get going.
“For me, being able to make my first shot was huge,” he says. “That kinda settled me in, settled my nerves and I was able to get into the flow early.”
To an extent, Chris already knew he could hold his own against budding pros. In April, he took home MVP honors from the 67th annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, where college seniors go to compete in front of scouts and executives and garner attention ahead of the NBA draft.
To a greater extent, Chris already knew he could score. He averaged 24.8 points per game over the course of his four years with the Fighting Camels of Campbell, including a nation-leading 30.1 points per game as a senior.
And, to the greatest extent, Chris already had all the confidence he needed within himself. That’s what helped him hold his own, time and time again, as the shortest kid on the playground while growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“It's just me, man,” he says of the source of his confidence. “I mean, if you don't have it out here, you're going to be in trouble. ... I've had it all my life.”
It’s one of the reasons Chris is in Vegas to begin with. As much as the Rockets were impressed by his gravity-defying athleticism and seemingly unlimited shooting range when they worked him out before the draft, they also admired the confidence he brought to the audition, irrespective of his size.
“That's just how he's built,” says Matt Brase, an assistant with the Rockets serving as Houston’s Summer League coach. “And I guess when you're the third-leading scorer in NCAA history, you're gonna have a little confidence and a little swagger going. He's definitely got that going for him.”
Only LSU's Pete Maravich and Portland State's Freeman Williams scored more points at NCAA Division I schools than Chris did at Campbell University. (Amir Ebrahimi)
The fearlessness for an undersized player. The competitive edge to prove doubters wrong and inspire others to do the same. The killer crossover to clear a path against bigger, longer opponents.
Those qualities might just as easily describe Chris as they would his favorite player, Allen Iverson, though even the 21-year-old wouldn’t put his handles up against The Answer’s.
“I don't think anybody's ever going to master that crossover, man,” he says. “I got my own little thing going, but no, nobody's taking that.”
Indeed, Chris’ course towards his dream of playing in the NBA will be different by default. Rather than sprinting into his rookie season as the No. 1 pick in the draft, as AI did coming out of Georgetown in 1996, he’ll have to scrap his way into the league after signing an Exhibit 10 contract. That will get him to training camp in Houston, but could still land him in the G League—on either a two-way deal or pact with the Rockets' minor-league club (the Rio Grande Valley Vipers) that would include a bonus of up to $50,000 if he hangs on for at least 60 days.
“It'd be amazing to be able to get out there in a Rockets uniform and play alongside James Harden and those guys,” he says.
During his first three Summer League games, Chris knocked down a total of 18 three-pointers. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Wherever he goes, Chris will have his ways to impress off the floor, too. He fancies himself a capable sketch artist, with people as his strongest subjects. And though he says he hasn’t drawn in “a long time,” he just might take some inspiration from Summer League.
“It's a good idea, man,” he says. “I'ma work on something, just for you.”
Perhaps, then, Chris will keep his sketch pad close as his basketball journey continues. And if he winds up wearing No. 59 again to match his height (intentionally or otherwise), he might keep that even closer.
“It’s fitting,” he says. “I like it.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.