Commentary

High-scoring Holston brings small frame and big game to Chicago State

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:18 PM ET
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- David Holston paused, starkly isolated against his man just beyond the 3-point line at the top of the key. The defender was relentless and determined, arms flailing, sweat flecking. Holston coolly rolled back and forth with his dribble like a metronome, but his opponent wouldn't commit to either side. Not even a violent stutter step would shake him.

[+] EnlargeDavid Holston
WG PhotosChicago State's David Holston is second in the country in scoring at 27.7 points per game.
Finally, as the shot clock wound down, Holston's only option was total and outright deception -- a signature Holston move. He pretended to lose control, losing the handle on the ball and regaining it in an eyeblink. The defender lunged before realizing his mistake and pulling back, but it was too late -- a sharp sliver of daylight had revealed itself. He pulled up, then snapped off a perfect rainbow from his elastic forearms.

David Holston for 3.

If his name sounds vaguely familiar, it's probably because you've seen it up high on a list of college basketball's leading scorers. But if you've borne witness to Holston's game, count yourself among the very few. The senior guard who sits second in the nation in scoring (27.7 points per game) plays for the Chicago State Cougars -- a team with no conference, zero television exposure, a minuscule fan base and a bizarre recent history marked with chaos and turmoil. So the man is in desperate need of introduction to a wider audience.

"David Holston is the best shooter in the country," said second-year Chicago State coach Benjy Taylor. "I know I'm his coach and I'm supposed to say things like that, but I really believe that he could play at almost any school in Division I."

Holston remains a secret even in his own backyard. When the Cougars took to the floor at this past weekend's Chicago Invitational Challenge mini-tournament at the Sears Centre in the city's northwest suburbs, families and girlfriends of the two opposing teams imported from southern states outnumbered fans in green and black CSU gear. The Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune didn't bother to show up. Holston toiled in front of thousands of empty blue seats in the minor league hockey arena, shooting 12-for-18 for 34 points in Friday's 15-point win over the MEAC's Bethune-Cookman. The next day, against a Mercer team that had beaten SEC teams Auburn and Alabama, he dropped 31 (on 12-for-22 shooting) in a losing effort.

"Sure, it's frustrating," the soft-spoken Holston said of Chicago's antipathy toward the program. "But that's the reality we face right now. We're not in a conference, we haven't won anything. It's easy to overlook Chicago State."

He's the toughest kid I've ever coached. He knows that he has to earn every advantage he gets. Nothing's going to be given to you when you're a 5-8 basketball player.

--Benjy Taylor

The program's main attraction is used to being overlooked. Coming out of Avondale High in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, Holston received no recruiting interest and walked on at Chicago State during his freshman year in the 2005-06 season. He quickly proved himself a diligent worker and earned a spot in the starting five, scoring 13.4 ppg and averaging 40.3 percent from 3-point land. Before his sophomore season, he was finally awarded a scholarship.

Although Holston has spent his summers perfecting his jump shot and honing his ankle-breaking crossover, slashing cuts and ambidextrous dribbling, there's one thing that he will never have -- basketball-player height.

Holston stands just 5-foot-8 and weighs 160 pounds. Among the thousands of players in Division I college basketball, only six are shorter than Chicago State's star.

"We don't talk much about height with David," Taylor said. "He simply wasn't blessed that way. But he's worked very hard to nullify that natural disadvantage, and for everything he's doing, you need to raise the bar and compare him to players 6-3 and under. He's beating players who are 6-3, 6-4 off the dribble. He'll close out his career here shooting 40 percent from 3 all four years. He's probably going to score 25 points and have 8 or 9 assists per game this season. The proof is in the numbers."

[+] EnlargeDavid Holston
Brent JonesAt 5-8, Holston is one of the smallests players in Div. 1, but is also one of its best shooters. Holston shoots 44.3 percent from 3-point range.
His height, however, is the primary reason he hasn't captured the attention of the next level. At the Sears Centre, a scouting table with 11 seats labeled with NBA team names would be filled to capacity for evening games featuring teams such as Marquette and Dayton, but only two showed up to watch Holston play the Saturday afternoon game. When Mercer's Mark Hall, a 5-11 reserve guard, easily launched a flat-footed 3 over him, Holston slumped for a second in frustration before getting back into the play. A pro scout scribbled a quick note, then went back to nursing his BlackBerry.

But Holston's 33.5 ppg over the weekend propelled him to second place on the national points per game chart, setting up what promises to be a back-and-forth two-way battle for the scoring title that will last all season long. His opponent is a certified NBA prospect, Stephen Curry from Davidson, who is a point and a half ahead at 29.2 points. According to one of the very few who watches both play on a regular basis (Holston from a front-row seat, Curry on ESPN every week), the national unknown in the race has one decided advantage.

"Stephen Curry has a set shot just like his dad," said veteran CSU play-by-play announcer Brian Snow. "They set a lot of screens for him to let him get into his rhythm. David can jump, and he can create his own shot with his incredible creativity. If David can get himself just a little bit of space, the shot's going up. He is a guard in the complete sense of the word."

One can't tell from Holston's gaudy numbers, but Chicago State's approach is not predicated on getting Holston open looks. High screens are virtually nonexistent in the Cougars' offense. ("He doesn't need them," Taylor said.) With the freedom to make things happen, Holston is good for at least one jaw-dropping selfless play per game, such as the dribble-drive no-look kick-out to teammate Christian Wall late in the Mercer game, resulting in an uncontested 3 over the drawn-in defense. Against Bethune-Cookman, he earned a point guard's double-double with 10 assists to complement his 34 points.

"He knows he can play," Taylor said. "At the same time, he's very humble and is constantly working on making himself better in all aspects of the game. He's the toughest kid I've ever coached. He knows that he has to earn every advantage he gets. Nothing's going to be given to you when you're a 5-8 basketball player."

In the end, his remarkable shooting ability will determine and dictate his future basketball plans. Even though Holston won't be an NBA millionaire next year, one opposing coach of late who recently coached in the pros -- and whose box-and-one defensive strategy resulted in a 31-point Holston outburst -- is suitably impressed.

"He's unbelievable," said Mercer's Bob Hoffman, who coached the NBA Development League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers last season. "He's a phenomenal shooter, his skills now are right up there with the players I saw in the D-League. If not better."

Holston doesn't want to stop playing basketball after he finishes college. "Wherever I fit in at the next level, that's where I'll go," he said.

[+] EnlargeBenjy Taylor
WG PhotosIn his second season in charge at Chicago State, Benjy Taylor has the Cougars off to a 3-3 start so far.
For now, Holston is the foremost basketball ambassador for Chicago State, a program in need of serious image improvement. The team has never had a winning season at the Division I level. The school abruptly left the Mid-Continent Conference (now the Summit League) after the 2005-06 season and has been wandering the country as an independent for two seasons before joining the Great West for the 2009-10 campaign. For years, Chicago State had no athletics Web site -- the only Division I school not to have one until it was created two months ago.

And the basketball team is defined primarily by its single "SportsCenter" moment, one that CSU has spent the past two years trying to forget.

At halftime of a December 2006 game at Michigan State, forward Cam-Ron Clay ripped off his shirt and challenged then-coach Kevin Jones to a brawl, requiring the intervention of campus police. The incident was rehashed on ESPN and blogs, making "Chicago State" synonymous with "dysfunctional laughingstock" in the eyes of college basketball fans.

"The rearview mirror is smaller than the windshield," said Taylor, whose team is 3-3 this season. "We're healing, recovering, exorcising demons. When I came here, it was the wildest thing I'd ever seen. Nobody was going to class, nobody cared about winning. Now, we're focused on making this a top-100 program and putting forward a product that fans will love. We don't have time to worry about the past.

"We're playing for the future, and David's legacy will be that he helped lay the foundation for future success at Chicago State. You can define a player's success as going to the NBA, what have you, but he's worked hard to overcome adversity and has set an example by doing things the right way … and that's going to be remembered here for a long time.

"He's the face of the program, and you couldn't pick a better one."

Kyle Whelliston is a contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).