Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Saah Nimley is a large part of Charleston Southern’s recent basketball resurgence. Besides that, it’s tough to use the word “large” when describing the Buccaneers’ star guard, for he is anything but.
Standing at a listed height of just 5-foot-8, the dynamic junior is one of the Big South’s premier players, finishing second to VMI’s Stan Okoye in last year’s Big South Player of the Year voting. And CSU coach Barclay Radebaugh is willing to go even further than that.
“Pound for pound, he’s the best point guard in the country,” Radebaugh said after a game against Delaware on Saturday. “I’m not saying he’s the best point guard in the country, I’m saying pound for pound he’s the best undersized point guard in the country--you won’t find a better one. His toughness, his mental toughness, his knowledge of the game has really helped us.”
For one thing, Nimley is not 5-8. On the court it’s tough to tell when he’s mixed in amongst those who are 6-7 and taller; as soon as he steps off, it’s obvious that’s a few inches too generous.
How generous, we may never know.
“Saah won’t let us measure him,” Radebaugh said. “True story.”
Nimley isn’t the only one on the team who’s shorter than most at his position. Alhaji Fullah, the teams’ starting center, is only about 6-7. Power forward Cedrick Bowen, a key reserve who had 13 points and six rebounds against Delaware, is only 6-4. But they all tower over their point guard, who serves as a reminder that to win in college basketball, size isn’t always necessary.
“I’m probably the smallest guard in the country, we’ve got probably the smallest four-man in the country, we understand that we’re going to have to work hard to get where we need to get to,” Nimley said. “We have some really tough dudes in our locker room and they’re going to do whatever they need to do to get the rebounds, to get the loose balls, to make shots, to set good screens.
“You can be 6-9, 6-7, 6-6 in the frontcourt but are you going to come here and play harder than us? It comes down to who plays the hardest.”
Once he gets out on the court, Nimley is quite hard to stop. Last year, he averaged 15.9 ppg and 5.0 apg, leading the team in both categories. He was also, incredibly, the team’s second-leading rebounder, at 5.3 per game.
The first time Radebaugh saw Nimley was four summers ago, in an event in Georgia. When he surveyed the court, he certainly wasn’t expecting to be recruiting the kid he was there to see.
“I sat down and the assistant coach, I said ‘who are we seeing, number 13?’ He said ‘no.’ I said ‘number 21?’ He said ‘no.’ He said ‘number 3,’” Radebaugh recounted. “I looked at him and said ‘are you kidding me? You serious?’”
Very quickly though, the coach was converted. It only took a single game.
“He had 39 that game and blocked a shot to win the game, came from behind and blocked a shot,” Radebaugh said, “and I went from ‘oh no’ to calling him after that recruiting period was over and begging him, please.
“He had one other offer and he’s the best player in our league. As you get to know him as a player he’s terrific, but as a person it’s amazing.”
In that wild 98-95 win at Delaware that saw CSU shoot over 75 percent for most of the first half while making 10 of their first 12 3-pointers, Nimley showed just why he’s gained recognition as one of the top guards in all of mid-major basketball. Though the Buccaneers had a balanced scoring attack with six players in double digits, Nimley led his team with 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He scored on the mid-range, on crafty shots in the lane and from 3-point territory, where he made 3-of-7 as part of a 12-of-24 performance by his team.
“Numbers will never speak for themselves, every day I come out here knowing I’ve got to prove something else. You can gameplan and say ‘he’s this and that,’ but in the back of their players’ heads they still think ‘he’s 5-6, there’s not much he can do,’ so every day I’m trying to come out here and make a statement,” Nimley said.
Nimley’s helped lead the team to 19 wins in each of the last two seasons, the most successful such period for the program since back-to-back 21-win seasons in 1985-86 and 86-87, the school’s first two in the Big South Conference. Before going 19-12 in 2011-12, Radebaugh’s seventh as head coach, it had been 15 years since the Buccaneers had finished with a winning record.
It’s no coincidence that Charleston Southern’s recent success on the court started right when the Liberia native--who moved to the country with his mother when he was two--got to campus. Nimley, along with fellow junior guard Arlon Harper (15.3ppg in 2012-13), were both widely ignored by the majority of Division I colleges during their high school careers, but luckily it was the right time for Radebaugh to be looking.
In his first few years as head coach at the 3200-undergrad school in (ironically enough) North Charleston, Radebaugh tried to recruit to a post-centric offense and found that when it came to getting true big men to play in the Big South, the pickings were slim. So he reworked his strategy and decided to go to a more up-and-down style. Nimley was the perfect guard to fill that role.
“We went to dribble-drive, we studied it, we went to more zone--because of our size it’s hard to guard, it’s hard to keep people in front of you,” Radebaugh said. “We just found a little niche that works for us. I’m not saying it works for everybody--I’m not recommending it for everybody--but for us and where we are, it works.”
Nimley isn’t the only undersized guard in the country who’s gotten noticed for more than just being diminutive. The most obvious comparison is star Massachusetts guard Chaz Williams, a 5-7 speedster who averaged 15.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 4.2 apg while powering the Minutemen to 21 wins last season.
The two haven’t met, but Nimley was clearly aware of who the UMass senior is.
“There’s nothing but respect, another small guard doing what he’s got to do, making it to a high level,” Nimley said. “I see another small guard doing his thing, he made it through the struggle too, he’s doing what he’s got to do to get where he’s got to get.”
Nimley has two years left to get his team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. The Buccaneers were picked to win the Big South’s South Division in the preseason poll after doing so last season. An 87-76 loss to Liberty, a team that CSU had beaten earlier in the season, kept the team from dancing.
Now an upperclassman, he knows he has to take more on his shoulders than just getting shots up and staying in shape.
“Of course I’m getting my work in with the gym, but it’s more of understanding the game, knowing my reads off the screens, knowing when to bump into a hard hedge, knowing when to swing it, knowing when to create and when sometimes it’s not going to be there,” he said. “Just trusting my teammates more and it’s just mental for me more so than skill, I just try to take a way better mental approach to the game and try to get my teammates more involved.”