“Overlooked and underrated.”
That’s the title Keon Claiborne created for himself.
The Times Boys Basketball Player of the Year in 2016 said he dreamed of playing for Villanova University growing up, and had Division I looks following his senior season at Winters Mill High School, but things didn’t pan out.
Instead, Claiborne chose to attend Frederick Community College and play for coach Emonte Hill. Throughout his young basketball career, with every bump in the road, those three simple words have been his motivation.
“I felt like I wasn’t highly recruited because I didn’t play on like a private school or a huge program where high-level coaches came and [watched],” Claiborne said via text message. “So while I was at [FCC], I came up with this title … because that’s what I felt I was and just used it as fuel to my fire along with people who would doubt me and didn’t believe I was good enough.”
After two seasons at FCC, Claiborne is transferring to Division II Chowan University in the fall to continue his basketball career. The private institution of a little more than 1,500 undergraduate students is located in Murfreesboro, North Carolina.
Hill said Claiborne’s personality was one of the top attributes that stood out to him during the recruitment process to FCC, and from there it was a match.
“He fit the bill and it was an easy sell for us,” Hill said. “Keon is a well-versed ball player. He can do a lot of different things in a lot of different positions.”
But the transition to college basketball wasn’t seamless.
Claiborne went from one of the top scorers in Carroll County during his senior season at Winters Mill — he averaged 17 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 2.1 steals — to a new environment as a freshman at FCC. He noted the big jump mentally and physically from the high school to college level.
Claiborne said he played just one minute during his first game with the Cougars but that moment served as a stepping stone in an unfavorable situation.
“Most kids let it get to them and I’m like, ‘You know what, maybe it was a reason,’” he said. “The coaches brought me in the next morning … and they were like, ‘We knew … we could have used you easily.’ So then after that, it took me like six games and then I got to starting.”
Claiborne started in 12 games for the Cougars his freshman season. He averaged 8.4 points and shot 43.5 percent from the floor as FCC finished with a 12-15 record (7-7 in Maryland JUCO play).
Not at all satisfied, Claiborne said he hit the weights and continued to hone his basketball skills.
The results showed.
Claiborne’s production jumped tremendously during his sophomore season. He averaged 10.1 points, improved his shooting percentage to 50.5, and nearly doubled his 3-point percentage to from 19 to 35.3.
“Physically, I wasn’t ready,” Claiborne said regarding his freshman season. “My body wasn’t strong enough to be able to withstand a full season. Things individually came, which helped us get better.”
FCC finished 22-6 (12-2 MD JUCO) during the 2017-2018 season and crafted a 14-game winning streak that lasted over two months. They jumped to as high as No. 8 in the NJCAA DII national polls, but the season ended in disappointment with a 76-60 loss to Garrett College in the Region XX D2 tournament (Claiborne led the Cougars with 15 points in that game).
Labeled as one of the most versatile players in the region for his play on both ends of the floor, Claiborne earned an All-Region second-team selection and interest from Division II schools.
However, the path to Chowan was unexpected.
The university originally expressed interest in one of Claiborne’s FCC teammates but he eventually got on their radar. From there, it was a visit to the school and a meeting with head coach Brett Vincent.
“On campus, I just felt like a nice atmosphere,” Claiborne said. “I wasn’t getting the same vibe [from other schools] that I was from [Chowan]. Once I met the head coach that same day, they took me on a tour … I really felt like this could be a home. I felt other people weren’t just looking at me just as a basketball player.”
Claiborne enters Chowan as a junior, and while he acknowledged there’s a difference being a JUCO transfer compared to attending the same school for all four years, it won’t stop him from making his impact early and often.
“I want to come in right away and play, do whatever I can do to help,” he said. “I want to come in, be a leader… whether I get the captain rank or not I still want to be a leader with my words and actions.”
The ultimate goal is to continue his basketball career professionally, Claiborne said.
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“I don’t want this to just be my last ride,” he said. “I hopefully one day … [will] play professionally, overseas, [and] continue this journey.”