College basketball: Brown hopes to make March sweet for High Point
Sometimes, High Point coach Scott Cherry just wants star forward John Brown to slow down and enjoy the moment. That’s not necessarily a simple request for the uber-athletic, energetic Panthers senior whose motor never stops running.
“That’s how I look every day,” Brown said Saturday night after covering every corner of the court and leading High Point to a 75-69 nonconference victory over Western Carolina. “I’m not where I want to be. I’m not settling for anything in my life right now.”
He’s first in conditioning drills, first in the weight room and first among the returning players in the Big South, where he’s been a first-team all-conference selection each of the last three seasons and was Player of the Year in 2013-14.
Against the Catamounts on Saturday night with an NBA scout in attendance, Brown put his entire toolkit on display. He caught a pass on the baseline, took one dribble and banked in two of his game-high 20 points. He faced the basket, spun by a flatfooted defender and rolled the ball over the rim. After junior guard Jorge Perez-Laham threw an errant pass, Brown immediately grabbed his teammate’s attention and told him to keep his chin up. More than once Brown sped from defending a screen at the 3-point line to soar above the rim and snare a rebound. He changed ends faster than everyone else repeatedly. And, of course, there was a spectacular dunk. There are always dunks, and plays of extraordinary athleticism delivered in practice, in games, found on Twitter at #0GRAVITY and replayed via ESPN Sportscenter’s top plays on 10 occasions since 2012.
“John affects the game in so many ways,” said Cherry, a former North Carolina guard in his seventh year as the High Point coach. “There’s a lot of stats that you don’t have on this sheet that he’s had some sort of effect on. Whether it’s adjusting a shot or a deflection or a charge or taking guys with him when he runs to open up the floor for other guys. There’s a lot of little things he does when you’re watching him on film, you’re like “holy smokes.’”
That he made it to this point is remarkable. Brown grew up in a rough neighborhood in Jacksonville, Fla., endured two years of prep school and a redshirt season at High Point to earn academic eligibility. In that first year at High Point he could not practice with the team so he spent time alone refining his skills. He now weighs 210 pounds, having added 50 pounds of muscle to his wiry 6-foot-8 frame since arriving on campus.
Upon joining the roster in 2012-13 he made an immediate impact, averaging 16.4 points per game. He entered this season as the nation’s third returning scorer (1,680 points) and with college basketball’s second-best player efficiency rating since 2009, trailing only Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried.
Still, Brown had justifiable reasons to leave High Point last May. He’ll be 24 years old by the NBA Draft in June, ancient for a league filled with franchises attracted to youth and potential when they select prospects.
Brown’s mother, Zarenia Dorsey, died in December 2014. He has a younger brother, Ja’Ron, 6, who is as tall as boys two years older but more interested in books than basketball. A professional contract will help Brown give Ja’Ron a better life when the time comes. But for now he’s letting his actions speak.
“I can’t be out here acting the fool. I’m trying to straighten myself up every day so he can have a positive role model. So he won’t have to look on the outside of our household when I’m right there. That’s just helping me mature as a man. Helping me do step by step positive things every day,” Brown said.
This idyllic campus in the heart of North Carolina is home now. Leaving the manicured lawns, spotless sidewalks and most important, his teammates, could wait.
“I could have entered the NBA draft early but my main focus on the NBA was it’s going to be there,” Brown said. “I needed to come back another year, get my craft right, do the little things better than I do em now. It’s going to be there 24-7.”
Improving his jump shot mechanics and polishing the mid-range skills of a pro small forward are significant parts of Brown’s development. His name doesn’t appear in the first or second round of the internet’s most reliable mock draft sites. It’s likely he’ll have to earn his way onto a team through a training camp invitation.
“He’s only been playing basketball for seven years. His ceiling is really high,” Cherry said. “He’s the type of kid who can play into his mid-30s and help an NBA team as a specialist. He’s going to come in come off the bench and give you tremendous energy. It comes down to the right situation. He’s willing to work. If you ask him to do it, he’s going to do it.”
Brown returned to polish those skills. And also because the Panthers, who start four seniors and a junior, want one last shot at the Big South Tournament. In the last three seasons High Point has a 37-13 conference record and has won the regular season title. But the postseason has been home to heartbreak. They understand well the Madness of March. The Panthers have lost their first game in the conference tournament each year by a combined four points, including a 72-71 overtime loss to Gardner-Webb last season.
Which explains why Brown pushes his teammates to achieve.
“It’s not because he’s a bad person,” Cherry said. “It’s because he wants to win so bad and wants his teammates to step up and continue to get better and help us get to where we want to get to which is the NCAA tournament.”
That's a destination High Point hasn't reached in 16 seasons as a Division I member. Leading the program there is a role Brown embraces.
“I know the guys look up to me,” he said. “I’m obviously in the spotlight all the time, so people are always looking at me. I have to be able to look past that on the floor, be able to give constructive criticism and receive it also. It goes both ways. We have different guys.”
High Point guard Adam Weary is Brown’s roommate and fellow senior.
“He’s a great teammate, a great guy, his abilities speak for themselves,” Weary said. “Off the court he’s just always there. He’s a funny guy, hilarious. An energetic guy that’s always positive.”
The Panthers are 3-1 entering a road game at Georgia tonight. Brown’s game continues to evolve. He’s drawing 7.8 fouls per 40 minutes and the 71.6 percent career free throw shooter is on an early pace to set a personal-best for attempts. He’s responding to the constant defensive attention and double teams by assisting on one-fifth of the Panthers’ baskets. And he continues to score, reaching double figures in 54 of the last 57 games and just 362 points shy of the program’s Division I scoring record. The record for steals is sure to fall as well.
The team and the community are intertwined. Following Saturday night’s win over the Catamounts in front of a capacity crowd of 1,750 in the Millis Center, players formed a line, slapped hands and hugged the necks of the well-dressed fans, some of whom had nibbled complimentary candy bars as they cheered from the courtside seats.
They’ve enjoyed a tasty front row look at an unexpected superstar for four years.
“He’s changed the High Point University men’s basketball program," Cherry said. "I try to get people to understand you better appreciate what you’re seeing, because these guys don’t come along very often at this level, or at any level.”