SAN DIEGO — When he first heard that a former West Virginia high school player of the year wanted to enroll at Marshall and play for his program, Thundering Herd coach Dan D’Antoni admits he was skeptical.
D’Antoni had never heard of Jon Elmore, let alone seen him play. He also knew better than to believe every piece of gossip about how talented a prospect was or what school he wanted to attend.
What persuaded D’Antoni to take Elmore’s interest more seriously was a phone call from close friend Greg White, who coached Marshall from 1996 to 2003. White informed D’Antoni that Elmore was looking for a program within driving distance of his ailing grandfather and urged the Marshall coach to offer a scholarship, sight unseen.
“I hadn’t talked to him, hadn’t seen film on him, hadn’t seen anything,” D’Antoni said. “I was like, ‘Get me film. I’ve got to look at him.’ Greg said, ‘You don’t have time. Take my word for it.’ I was like, ‘Alright, Greg. But I know where you live. I’ll be there if this doesn’t work out.'”
Three years after D’Antoni blindly followed White’s advice, it’s safe to say it worked out pretty well. The kid who enrolled at Marshall before D’Antoni even met him is now the hero of the Thundering Herd’s first NCAA tournament win in program history.
Elmore was the best player on the floor Friday afternoon during 13th-seeded Marshall’s 81-75 first-round victory over fourth-seeded Wichita State. The 6-foot-3 junior torched the Shockers for a team-high 27 points on only 13 shots, showing why his teammates and coaches describe him as one of college basketball’s most overlooked players.
“I knew if he just got the stage he’d be able to do it,” said his older brother Ot Elmore, a reserve guard for Marshall. “His whole life, he has always been underrated. I think he’s one of the best players in the country, and today he showed the nation.”
The Elmore brothers would probably be playing for Virginia Military Institute right now had their grandfather not fallen ill in fall 2014. Ot was just beginning his second school year at VMI and Jon was a few weeks from starting his freshman season.
Otmer Elmore, a former basketball player at West Virginia, had helped raise Ot and Jon and taught them how to play basketball. Therefore both Ot and Jon felt they had a responsibility to drop out of school, return home to Charleston and help take care of their ailing grandfather.
Said Jon, “Family is most important to me. If I had to do it again, I would.”
Said Ot, “I wouldn’t trade the time we spent together for the world.”
With his grandfather’s condition worsening, Jon decided to seek out a school closer to home where he could resume his studies and his basketball career. The problem was that VMI refused to grant him a release from his letter of intent, meaning that he would have to pay his own way for his first year at his new school and he could not have direct contact with the coaches until he enrolled.
Marshall was a natural fit for Jon both because of its proximity and its style of play. D’Antoni, who was hired in April 2014, favored a similar fast-paced, freewheeling style to the one his brother Mike has made famous in the NBA. Marshall players have the green light to shoot when they have a glimmer of space rather than patiently waiting for a higher-percentage look that may never come.
Having sent word through back channels that he was interested in playing for Marshall, Jon showed up at the basketball office the day spring semester classes began in January 2015. Jon introduced himself to D’Antoni and asked if he could play for Marshall. D’Antoni, putting his trust in White, said yes.
“I don’t think they really knew what they were getting,” Ot said.
Transfer restrictions prevented Jon from playing for Marshall until mid-December 2015, but he offered a glimpse at what was to come as a ringer on a friend’s intramural team. He says he scored 101 points, though he admits he defense wasn’t exactly Division I caliber.
When D’Antoni watched Jon in practice during that time period, he saw flashes of the player who averaged 31.4 points per game as a high school senior. Better yet, he also saw a player eager to do whatever it took improve.
“Once you talk to him, you know his heart burns to compete and burns to work,” D’Antoni said. “He set goals for himself. I’d be careful trying to get in his way. He’s going to try to make it there.”
The younger Elmore brother has started all three seasons he has played for Marshall and has evolved from a productive but inefficient player to one of the best scoring guards in the nation. He is averaging 22.8 points and 6.9 assists this season in D’Antoni’s revved-up, 3-point-heavy system.
Elmore seldom gets much publicity playing for a school overshadowed by West Virginia in its own state and Middle Tennessee in its own league, so the chance to play against NBA prospect Landry Shamet on a national stage Friday was one that he relished. He threw some gorgeous alley-oop passes, got to the foul line 15 times and contributed to holding Shamet to 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting.
“We’ve been telling him all week they had a great guard in Landry Shamet,” Ot said. “I hate to say this, but Jon came out and busted him pretty good.”
As Elmore was celebrating the victory with his teammates in the closing seconds of Friday’s game, he admits he thought of his grandfather and his long journey to get to this point.
Only four years ago, Elmore was a player without a school. Only three years ago, he was reduced to starring in intramural games. Now he’s living his childhood dreams as a star on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs,” Elmore said. “Transferring schools. Sitting out. Being away from basketball because of that. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t do it any differently. We just got Marshall it’s first NCAA tournament win in program history.”
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