Phil Taylor has not had your typical journey to the top of the college basketball world. The former Division I guard leads the NCAA in scoring, tops in all three divisions at 34.9 points a game. But he's arrived there a little late, and mostly under the radar at Division II Shorter University in the small town of Rome, Georgia.
Taylor’s journey began in 2009 at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. He was heavily sought after and eventually committed to Florida International, where he was recruited by NBA legend Isiah Thomas, then the head coach.
“He could really shoot and score the basketball,” Thomas said of Taylor. “I went to watch him a couple times at Wheeler. His competitive drive and his willingness to work really attracted me to him just as a person who wanted to compete. He was small in stature, but he was big in heart.”
The 5-foot-10 Taylor was drawn to FIU specifically because of Thomas and his Hall of Fame career.
“Growing up, being a small guard, he was one of the greatest guards to ever play the game,” Taylor said. “I had numerous schools I could have gone to in the SEC and ACC, but I knew wherever I went I was going to develop into the player I was going to be. I just felt that he was going to take my game to the next level. He taught me a lot on and off the court.”
After biding his time as a freshman, Taylor made his presence felt as a sophomore. Taylor scored 13.5 points a game that season — with eight 20-point performances — while averaging three assists a game.
“Like most kids coming up in college, it takes awhile until you get acclimated to the campus and the academic work,” Thomas explained. “Once he was able to balance all of that and be focused on playing on the floor, he became a great player for us. I thought we were really close to turning the corner. Phil was the leader of that group.”
Taylor earned third team All-Sun Belt honors. But Thomas and FIU would surprisingly part ways after that year. A disappointed Taylor walked away, too, taking a couple of years to do some soul searching.
“It was nothing against the new coach, but I committed to Isiah,” Taylor said. “I just wanted to stay with that decision. I was getting my mind right. Taking that time off, I was just thinking about the game. I knew this is what I loved and what I really wanted to do. You don’t get many opportunities to get a second chance.”
In somewhat of a homecoming, Taylor returned to Georgia to lace them up for the Shorter Hawks. Rome is a little more than an hour's drive from Wheeler High.
“They were really interested in doing whatever it took to get me here,” Taylor said. “I had other schools as well, but Tyler Murray is great guy and coach. I meshed with the coaching staff really well, and thought the players were cool. I went with who I felt was interested in me the most.”
Taylor, who turned 25 earlier this month, had an outstanding return to the court, starting all 29 games last season and leading the Hawks in scoring (25.1 points per game) and assists (4.6 per game). He also finished third in rebounding with 5.6 a game.
Thomas was a huge influence in Taylor's basketball life, but he wasn't the only one. Taylor's godfather was another undersized guard with scoring ability and a ton of grit. He became one of the legends of the Big East and an NBA Hall of Famer: Allen Iverson.
“Growing up in New York my dad played basketball for awhile, so they had mutual friends,” Taylor said. “I never really got to watch Isiah play live, but I was able to watch [Iverson].
"Who didn’t love Allen Iverson? He was one of the best players in the world. I modeled my game after him so much, I wear No. 3 just like him. He always told me, 'Play every game like it’s your last.'"
Taylor has thrived on that advice, using what some see as a height disadvantage as one of his biggest motivators. Now Taylor is playing the best basketball of his life.
“Those guys would never quit,” Taylor said of Thomas and Iverson. “I’d watch those old games when Isiah would play against Jordan, and Magic and Bird. They’d beat him up, he’d get hit every time, and he’d go right back. He never quit. Same thing with Allen Iverson. He’d go right at [Hall of Fame big man Shaquille O'Neal].
"I may not win every game, but I’m going to go out fighting every time I step on the court. I love it. I’ll take it any day. It’s a chip on the shoulder, but you become a fan favorite. That actually motivates me even more, giving the people a good game to see. I come in and I put in the work, and I love to entertain the fans.”
This season, more mature and focused, Taylor has been an absolute scoring machine.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Thomas said. “When you talk about a basketball player, Phil is a basketball player. You could put him in any environment, in any gym in America and his game won’t change. There are some kids that you put in a different environment and their game will have to be different. Phil’s game was so good, it was so tight and compact, that no matter where he played or who he played against he was going to play the same way.”
Taylor leads his team in assists this year, and he's second in rebounds with 4.6 a night. He has a dominant post player this year, too.
Eric Ross, who transferred from Southern Connecticut State, has been a beast in the paint. The 6-foot-7 big man is averaging a career-best 10.9 points a night while chipping in 13.5 boards per game, tops in the Gulf South Conference and second in DII. His presence has opened things up even more for the quick Taylor.
“I love having him out there,” Taylor said. “Last year we had a great team, but we were missing that dog down low. [Ross] may not be the most talented offensive guy, but that dude plays so hard every single play. He makes me look good, so I try to reward him as much as I can to make him look good as well.”
Saturday, Ross and Taylor were on full display against North Alabama. Ross finished with 12 points and 18 rebounds despite spending much of the second half on the bench in foul trouble. Trailing by double-digits late in the game, Taylor took over, driving to the basket and drilling 3-pointer after 3-pointer. He finished with 40 points, seven rebounds and four assists. His last shot — with no time on the clock —rimmed out, and the Hawks fell 87-86.
“Who likes to lose by one?” Taylor said. “Sometimes I'd rather lose by 20 than just one. It goes back to little mistakes. That extra box out, that extra loose ball, that extra free throw. It’s a great learning experience. Games like this get us ready for a push to the playoffs.”
While Taylor is focused on the next 11 games and getting to the postseason, his long term goals are clear. Like his godfather and former head coach, he wants to play in the NBA.
“I watch the game every day,” Taylor said. “I study it every day. I watch guys like Kyrie [Irving] and Isaiah [Thomas] on the Celtics now and see how much those little guys affect the game. I feel like I could definitely do the same at the next level.”
Thomas believes Taylor is more than capable of excelling at the next level.
“He has the one thing that the NBA looks for first right now, and that’s, ‘Can you shoot the basketball?'" Thomas said. "He is a superior shooter. His ball handling and decision making, given the right opportunity and the right chance, he can absolutely succeed. There’s a place and a coach for every situation in the NBA. The NBA is all about timing and a little luck, finding a coach and a system that likes you that you can fit into and play well in.”
Whatever happens next, Taylor is in the best place he’s been in since his journey began. Mature, focused and with a true appreciation for the game that he loves, it's easy to see that Taylor gives all of himself — all 5-foot-10 — every second he plays.
“When you get older, you realize the things you really want in life,” Taylor said. “This is something I want to take serious, and have a great career with. I just put my all into it and hopefully the best will come out.”