Dynamic Career of John Brown Ending on a High Note

Posted by Ray Curren on January 8th, 2016

To casual college basketball fans, the mention of John Brown often elicits a quizzical look of recognition with an inability to place the name in the proper cerebral file cabinet. Wait, he plays for one of those really small schools, right? High something. High Top? High Tide? The dude with those sick dunks that show up on the SportsCenter Top Ten a few times a season? Is he still playing? To paraphrase noted philosopher Zed of Men In Black fame, Brown is often “a rumor, recognizable only as deja vu and dismissed just as quickly.” Except there are no flashy thingies that can erase YouTube (at least not yet), and you can spend a decent portion of your evening lost in Brown dunk highlights.

One of the best leapers in the history of college basketball, John Brown is looking to end his senior year on a high note. (AP)

One of the best leapers in the history of college basketball, John Brown is looking to end his senior year on a high note. (AP)

It’s High Point, of course, whose most known export prior to Brown’s arrival was its furniture. Nestled a few miles southwest of Winston-Salem and southeast of Greensboro, it’s also within shouting distance of ACC towns Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, meaning that very few mainstream media members notice High Point home games at the Millis Center (capacity 1,750) or its plight in the Big South. Until he does this. Or this. According to the university, Brown — now a senior — has appeared on SportsCenter’s Top Ten plays a total of 10 times in his career, and his alley-oop against Coastal Carolina in 2014 has been seen by 2.5 million people and counting. (ed. note: the school has even developed its own John Brown microsite)

“They want to see the dunks, and there are some people who just know me through that, but there are a lot of people that do their homework and know I’m more than that,” Brown said. “I’m glad I’m just a click away most of the time, though.” Brown has been much more than dunks for coach Scott Cherry‘s Panthers the last four seasons. He was the 2013 Big South Freshman of the Year, the 2014 Big South Player of the Year, and was barely edged out by Charleston Southern’s Saah Nimley last season for another POY award. Brown is second among active Division I players in scoring (1,937 — behind only Evansville’s D.J. Balentine), and should become High Point’s Division I career scoring leader by the end of the season. And that’s not really Brown’s biggest strength. At 6’8″, 210 pounds, the athleticism and quickness that allow him to pull off remarkable dunks also make him an outstanding defender: He has averaged 6.7 rebounds for his career along with 148 blocks and 156 steals.

“The kid has come from a tough place and he’s just got such a great personality,” Cherry said. “If you know his whole background and where he’s come from, that’s amazing. He’s a warrior, he’s going to fight you on the court until he can’t move anymore, and tonight, people might not have seen it, but he was down there hitting people and keeping them off the glass, going to get rebounds, and he plays against the biggest guys on the other team every game.” His upbringing is part of the reason why he remained at High Point. As an academic non-qualifier, he had to redshirt his true freshman season of 2011-12, which scared off most of the schools from bigger conferences. But Brown, who had not played much organized basketball growin up (football was his main sport in Jacksonville), found a home in High Point.

So while some players like Shonn Miller (Cornell to UConn) and Damion Lee (Drexel to Louisville) have taken full advantage of the graduate transfer rule to get noticed and play in a power conference, Brown remains at High Point for his fifth and final campaign. “The NBA or whatever is going to be there regardless,” Brown said. “I want to do something that’s never been done in school history before. Plus, I can take classes for another degree and get a minor in coaching. You can never have enough degrees.” Said Cherry: “Absolutely there was a worry [that Brown might leave]. That’s kind of the state of college basketball right now. Just look around and watch games and see teams like UConn and there’s transfers and graduate transfers everywhere.”

John Brown is averaging 18.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season. (Getty)

John Brown is averaging 18.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season. (Getty)

While Brown’s individual numbers are remarkable, what he has done for his school might be equally so. The Panthers have gone 37-13 in the last three seasons, sharing the Big South regular season title twice and winning it outright once. Yet, not only has High Point failed to win the Big South Tournament (it has never qualified for the NCAAs since becoming a Division I team in 1999), it has never even won a single game. In Brown’s freshman year, High Point was upset by Liberty, a team it had swept in the regular season, 61-60. A year later, it was Winthrop, another squad which High Point had defeated in its only meeting, who stunned t them, 62-60. Finally, last season, it was Gardner-Webb, which — you guessed it — the Panthers had beaten twice yet advanced, 72-71.

Three heartbreaking losses by a total of four points. Zero NCAA Tournament berths. Not even a conference finals appearance for Brown to get some full-game exposure on national television. Such is the often cruel world of one-bid conferences and why Brown remains largely an apparition to much of the nation, even if national outlets like Sports Illustrated have taken the time to write wonderful features on him. “We just didn’t do the right things leading up to that point. We have to try to limit our distractions,” Brown said. “We haven’t had any this year with our guys and we have to keep that up. We’ll play all these teams twice before then, so everybody knows everybody’s stuff, so it will come down to who wants it more and who wants to make that extra pass and make the big plays at the end.”

He has one more shot. High Point made ESPNU against Georgia this season, and its January 14 game against Winthrop has been picked up by ESPNU with the possibility of a couple of others. High Point is more than just Brown, of course, and was picked just ahead of Coastal Carolina to win the Big South by coaches in the preseason. On New Year’s Eve, the Panthers dismantled a Radford team that had beaten Georgetown and Penn State by a score of 77-60, needing “just” 14 points and 10 rebounds from Brown (to go with zero turnovers — he has been among the national leaders in lowest turnover rate the last two seasons). Afterward, Brown didn’t want to talk much about his two dunks, but his four assists, which he thinks helps show his continuous improvement.

John Brown (USAT Images)

John Brown Hopes to Give America a Glimpse of His Entire Game This March (USAT Images)

“I was Speedy Gonzalez back then,” Brown said. “I’ve learned to pace myself like you saw today, I got some assists, found the open guy. I’ve been working on that stuff since freshman year, but I’ve started to actually listen now. I’m more mature, so it’s a little easier for me now. Last year, they were a little scared. But I told them, ‘I need you all. When everybody collapses on me, you’re going to get open,’ and that’s what happened today.” High Point starts three other seniors in addition to Brown: Adam Weary (who recently got his 1,000th career point), Lorenzo Cugini, and Anthony Lindauer, who was the primary beneficiary of Radford’s attention on Brown, with a trio of three-pointers.

The Panthers rank 80th nationally in offensive efficiency and are 12th in three-point percentage (41.8%). Brown can take no credit for that kind of perimeter shooting, as he is 0-of-11 for his career from outside the arc — one of the knocks on his game heading to the next level. As the tallest player on the team, Brown can most often be found playing center, making for some very difficult matchups (even in the Big South). Early in the game with Radford, the Panthers gave up 12 offensive rebounds in the first 15 minutes of play. But Brown kept working and High Point conceded just two more the rest of the way, allowing it to get out in transition. “He’s always been focused, but I think now he starts to sense that the end is near, and he’s really trying to spend time getting better at his game,” Cherry said. “He’s been working on his jump shot and it shows. He’s been better around the basket. Before, he would go to a bunch of different things.”

Brown’s dunk count finished at two last Thursday — a big one in the first half and a mediocre one (by his standards) early in the second. A couple of other alley-oop attempts were thwarted by Radford defenders who apparently weren’t in on the show. Late in the game with the contest already decided, Weary tried his best to set Brown up for what would have been a highlight-worthy alley-oop, but again the Highlanders weren’t interested in becoming viral social media fodder. Weary smiled afterward, and even though that play went awry, the Panthers moved to 3-0 in conference for the first time since 2005-06 [ed. note: they subsequently moved to 4-0 over the weekend with an away win at Charleston Southern.] They have now won 27 of their last 29 games at the cozy Millis Center, but that won’t be a factor in March. With Coastal Carolina’s impending exit from the Big South, the postseason tournament is moving to Campbell this season. Maybe the change in scenery will provide the chance for Brown and High Point to finally end their postseason woes, and those non-hardcore college basketball fans around the country will finally have a chance to see that there is so much more to the kid from the small school with all the dunks. “The biggest thing is just being consistent and play hard every game,” Brown said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”

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