Dan D’Antoni surely believes in fate, because how else can you explain it? How else to explain that his team’s best player was putting up 101 points in intramurals before putting on the green and white? How else to explain that D’Antoni literally had no idea who he was?
The story of Jon Elmore coming to Marshall is a combination of luck and heartbreak. However it happened, it’s working. The 6’3” junior guard is averaging 23.5 points per game, eighth-best in Division I, and is leading the Herd to an 11-4 start, their best since 2011-12.
A word here about the comparisons: Before we get all Twitter-crazy, before we take this out of context, know this: There’s a difference between Jon Elmore and Steve Nash and Steph Curry. “There’s levels here,” D’Antoni says.
But when D’Antoni sees Elmore, he sees the two MVPs. “His game is a kind of a cross between Nash and Curry,” says D’Antoni, who coached Nash in Phoenix for three years. “He’s kind of a scoring point similar to Curry, and yet he has the craftiness of Nash. He’s got all kinds of finishes at the rim. He makes off-balance layups I couldn’t even think about doing.”
That combination has driven Elmore to new heights this year. He scored a career-high 38 points in a 102-91 season opening win over UT-Martin, adding eight rebounds. He’s already nabbed two Conference-USA player of the week awards and in an 106-70 win over Concord, he tied a conference record for most double-doubles from points and assists.
But none the accolades would exist if D’Antoni hadn’t listened to his friend, Greg White. A former coach at Marshall, White came to D’Antoni with a suggestion about a player from Charleston who needed a team. “He goes, ‘well, he wants to come, and Danny, you better take him,” D’Antoni recalls. “It’s worked out pretty well.”
Jon Elmore’s family connections initially led him to Virginia Military Institute. Growing up, Elmore lived in the legend of his father, Gay, who graduated VMI in 1987 as the school’s all-time leading scorer. His grandfather, Otmer, played at West Virginia.
“They taught me everything I know,” says Elmore. “My grandpa and dad were there for me every day in the gym, multiple times a day, taking me to play pickup all over the state, taking us to tournaments all over the country.”
Elmore certainly inherited the family basketball genes. He averaged 31.4 points as a senior at George Washington High in Charleston, and won the Evans Award as the state’s top player. (He and Gay are the only father-son duo to both win the award.) With older brother Ot already at VMI, it was an easy decision for Jon to continue the family legacy.
Then he got the news.
Two weeks before his freshman season began, Otmer was diagnosed with cancer. With his grandfather ailing three hours away, Elmore made the decision to leave school and help with the care.
“Family came first to me,” he says. “They taught me everything I know, they blessed me with everything I’ve been giving. I don’t regret it.”
But Elmore’s departure didn’t come without strings. A year after the Elmore brothers left—they would sleep on their grandfather’s couch—VMI still hadn’t granted a release from the school. Jon lost an appeal to try to gain a year of eligibility. There were reports of an agreement made between the school and the family, whereby the family would pay the school $50,000. When VMI reportedly raised that figure to $110,000, it was too much for the Elmores. It would be more than a year before VMI would officially release Elmore. (Ot Elmore would eventually transfer Texas Rio Grande, before coming to Marshall in 2016, where he’s a senior reserve guard.)
After two months of living with and taking care of his grandfather, Elmore decided to enroll at Marshall—paying his own way— about an hour away. Elmore was strategic—he knew D’Antoni played an uptempo style, and he thought his skillset fit in. But because of NCAA rules, he couldn’t contact the coach. So at first, Elmore just played intramural ball.
“It was miserable,” he says. But it gave Elmore a chance to keep his game sharp and show off his stuff. One game, he says, he shot 33-for-38 from three, finishing with 101 points. “Just one of those nights I could have throw up a shot from half court,” he says. “But it was a great introduction to Marshall, because I got to meet all the students.”
Which leads back to a coach who had no idea of the type of talent walking around campus. “I had no clue,” D’Antoni says in his thick southern drawl. He relied on White’s description, and figured a former state player of the year had to be pretty good.
Elmore made his debut in Dec. ‘15, and quickly became an impact player. He finished that first season second in the C-USA in assists. Last year, he averaged 19.7 points per game, and was first-team all-conference. Call it luck, call it fate. Whatever it is, that snap decision makes D’Antoni look like a genius—and will have NBA scouts flocking to Huntington.
“I think I have the ability to score from all three levels,” says Elmore. “But my main goal is to make the guys around me better. I have the ability, whether that’s scoring the ball quite frequently, or setting up guys with assists. Just trying to do whatever is needed at the time.” Elmore did declare for the NBA Draft last season, but never really intended to leave Marshall. “I just wanted to get my name out there being a small town kid from West Virginia,” he says.
Marshall will most likely have to go through Middle Tennessee to get the C-USA bid to the tournament. But even if they don’t, Elmore says you should be watching Marshall basketball anyway.
“I am probably the most underrated point guard in the country,” Elmore says. “That’s probably the label I would give myself. I’d say that would be a pretty good title.”
Not lacking for confidence, this Nash/Curry hybrid might not win NBA MVPs. But with a long winding journey, Elmore has finally found a home, at a school where nobody knew who he was. And just like his NBA brethren, he’ll continue to put up big numbers—with a flair.