Consider the current list of college basketball’s top scorers.
University of Texas at San Antonio’s Jhivvan Jackson leads the nation at 26.2 points per game. He’s 6 feet.
Marquette’s Markus Howard and Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis are next at 25.6. Howard is 5-11, Davis 6-1.
Northeastern’s Jordan Roland is sixth, NJIT’s Zach Cooks is eighth and Columbia’s Mike Smith tied for ninth. Put them together, and you have 6-1, standing next to 5-9, standing next to 5-10. That means six of the nation’s current top 10 scorers are 6-1 or under. So let’s hear it for the little guys. Size has to always matter in this game? Here is a group testament to the contrary.
As Jackson said, from the top rung, "It just shows it's all about the work. They're in the same situation as me. They all want to prove they belong."
And as Howard said, right behind, "Guys under six feet, we have to find different ways to score, and I think that’s what makes us dangerous . . . that’s what makes us unique in terms of being able to be guarded, us taking shots defenders aren’t really used to."
So here’s Jackson, a Puerto Rican native who moved to Dallas in the sixth grade, going from Conference USA freshman of the year in 2018, to the league's top scorer in 2019, to stepping up the production even more this season, topping 20 points 11 times. He was recently named national player of the week by the United States Basketball Writers Association. That hadn't happened for C-USA player in 10 years.
And here’s Howard, putting up 40 points against Davidson one day and 51 the next against USC. He’s now had a 50-point game three consecutive seasons and the only other major conference players to ever do that were Oklahoma’s Wayman Tisdale and LSU’s Pete Maravich.
Here’s Davis, third in the nation in scoring last season, when he passed Stephen Curry’s freshman 3-point record with 132. And Cooks, now a junior, who averaged barely eight points a game as a freshman. And Roland, who started this season with 39 and 42 points in the first two games. And Smith, who missed much of last season with an injury.
They have something close to a fraternity, the barely-six-foot-and-under set. Phi Sorta Shorta. When they turn on the TV, and see a fellow lodge brother torching a defense, they appreciate it, because they know what it’s taken. Cal State Northridge’s Terrell Gomez is also in the top-20 in scoring at the moment. All 5-8 of him. In his team bio, he listed this as the best advice he ever received: "You can be 5-8, but your mindset should be 7-0."
The others in the fraternity, they get it. Maybe that's why the guys at the top sound rather alike, be about their journey, or their scoring.
Jackson: "I always heard I was too small, I was too little, I didn’t have enough weight to make it to the next level. I think for all of us small guys, that’s motivation to do even better. I think everybody can relate to that. I always heard to do that and I still do this day. It just keeps me hungrier."
Howard: "It’s always been something that’s been a chip on my shoulder. It’s helped me in the long run because I’ve always been motivated just to prove people wrong. I’m just proving myself right. People can think whatever they want, but not only myself, but a lot of people around the country under six feet are proving a lot of people wrong."
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Jackson: "I really don’t really care about the stats, I’m just happy my work is paying off. My offseason, (the gym) is where I live. I just kept getting better and my teammates and coaches trusted me . . . they gave me the freedom to take some shots, but it’s all about the work because they knew how much work I put in."
Howard: "It’s definitely an honor (to be contending as the nation’s top scorer), but it’s something I couldn’t do alone. My teammates, the credit should go to them because they allow me to be who I am on the court. My coaches and my teammates are giving me the freedom to be myself and do the things I can on the court."
So how does it happen, for those who don’t stretch the measuring tape? The 3-pointer has been a help. Among the scorers in the top 10, Jackson has 45 of those, Howard 48, Davis 44, Roland 42. So has the ability to hit free throws. Jackson, Howard, Davis, Roland and Smith are all over 81 percent from the line. And they’ve all been toughened by the lifelong burden of having to work on their skills, as the only way to survive and thrive among the giants.
They do not necessarily need to take enough shots to get tennis elbow, or never leave the floor, or always be Plan A, B, C and D in the lineup. Jackson’s teammate, Keaton Wallace, averages more than 16 points a game, giving UTSA one of the nation’s most potent backcourts. Howard averages just under 30 minutes and 17 shots a game. Marquette has other weapons, too, and maybe that’s why, among the top scorers, Howard’s team is conspicuous by its winning. The Golden Eagles are 10-3. Jackson’s UTSA is 6-7, Davis’ Detroit Mercy 2-12, Cooks’ NJIT 3-10, Roland’s Northeastern 8-6, Smith’s Columbia 4-10.
"All I want to do is win, because I think I’ve proved I can score," Jackson said.
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"It’d be special, but it’d mean nothing if we didn’t win," Howard mentioned of a scoring title. "I’m just trying to get the best shot possible, whether that be for myself or somebody else. I think my shot selection has been a lot better this year."
Jackson is accustomed to opponents trying to stop him — "I’ve been used to defenses focusing in on me since I was a kid" — and likes to prepare by studying the games of other smaller players. Guess who’s one of his favorites to watch? Markus Howard, the man in his rearview mirror in the scoring race.
"I think me and him, we take kind of similar shots," he said. "I learned from that. I just watched him because I know he’s getting guarded just like me, if not worse. I like watching other players to see what they’re doing different than I am."
Actually, so much noise being made by small guards is nothing new. Among the four past national scoring champions: 5-9 Chris Clemons of Oklahoma, 5-9 Marcus Keene of Central Michigan and 5-11 James Daniel of Howard. The giant of the quartet was Oklahoma’s Trae Young. He’s 6-2.
Bottom line: Big things in college basketball can come in small packages.
"I know at the end of the day I’m a basketball player, so my size shouldn’t matter," Howard said. "It’s all about producing."
The nation’s leading scorer — whose unusual first name means bringer of life, which is what he certainly does for the UTSA offense — concurs. "You work hard," Jhivvan Jackson said, "everything will take care of itself."