CLEMSON’S JORDAN Roper proved a season ago to be as quick as any guard in the ACC. The Irmo High graduate also displayed to the league an adeptness at both taking the ball to the basket and shooting it beyond the 3-point arc.
More than anything, though, Roper proved to his doubters that he belonged at the highest level of college basketball during a sterling freshman season.
“There’s talent everywhere, but there’s an equalizer. And that equalizer is work ethic, and it’s what separates good players from great players. It’s what separates the wannabes from the guys who get there,” says Tim Whipple, Roper’s coach at Irmo High. “That’s why I really had a lot of confidence that, even though Jordan had some physical liabilities, his work ethic would overcome that.”
The liabilities amount to Roper being considered too frail to play what has become an increasingly strength-based game. Roper is listed at 5-foot-11 and weighs the same 165 pounds he did as a four-year starter at Irmo.
The spindly frame resulted in Roper being labeled a “mid-major” prospect during his high school career. Not helping matters was that Roper had the misfortune of coming out of high school in the same class as Brice Johnson, a 6-9 forward from Edisto High, and Shaq Roland, a 6-1 guard from Lexington High. The highly touted Johnson took his game to North Carolina, and the versatile Roland spurned basketball offers in favor of playing football at South Carolina.
Roper seemed destined to attend Presbyterian, which was hot on his trail since the eighth grade, or S.C. State or Mercer. A late-arrival to Roper’s recruiting was VCU, which had emerged as a mid-major power following its 2011 appearance in the Final Four.
“I was still aiming pretty high, but realistically, that is what I was thinking,” Roper says of his mid-major prospects. “I wasn’t a big-name guy. I never went to the Nike basketball tournaments and camps. I wasn’t really known. I wasn’t one of the first guys that popped up on lists.”
The best the current Clemson basketball media guide could come up with in praise of Roper’s prospects was a No. 84 national rating by PrepStars. It was the kind of ranking that rankled Roper’s biggest supporter, his father, Eric.
“I thought they were all nuts. Absolutely,” the elder Roper says of top-level coaches and scouting services alike.
The only real believer in Roper as a high-level player was Clemson. Earl Grant, a Clemson assistant coach, and Tigers’ head coach Brad Brownell saw something in Roper that most did not.
“I liked his ability to score,” Brownell says. “From talking to the kid, I thought he was a confident guy. I thought he was a guy who could handle the big moment. ... He comes from one of the best programs in the state of South Carolina, played for a good coach. All those factors led me to be pretty comfortable with signing him.”
Through the tutelage of his father, Roper was well-schooled from an early age in how to play the game.
Growing up in Bamberg, baseball was Roper’s first love. But the more the young Roper filtered into pickup basketball games with his father and his father’s friends, the more Roper gravitated to hoops.
“The older guys (in Bamberg) were pretty good, lower-level college players,” Eric Roper says. “That’s who he worked with when he got to be old enough to physically be able to play against them. I would take them out there with me and let them knock him around and beat him around. When he came out and played kids his age, it was easy for him.”
Once he was strong enough, Roper learned to shoot a jump shot. The lesson learned, Roper continues to execute one of the prettier jumpers in the game, using his 40-inch vertical leap to elevate before releasing the ball.
The Roper family moved to Irmo when Roper was in the sixth grade, and he immediately began playing on the summer travel ball circuit. By the time he reached Irmo High, Roper turned the development of his game over to Whipple.
Following every high school season, Eric Roper and Whipple sat down and discussed one aspect of Roper’s game that most needed development or refinement during travel-ball season.
“Let’s say it was, ‘OK, Jordan you’re left-handed, I really need you to work on your right hand this summer. You need to be able to dribble just as good right-handed as left-handed your sophomore year,’ ” Whipple recalls saying. “During AAU season, I would go watch him play. He’d get a ball stolen from him trying to work on his right hand. He would fail at times and not be afraid to fail because he knew in the long run it was going to make him a better basketball player.”
During his sophomore season, Whipple noticed that when Roper took the ball to his right off the dribble, he almost always extended the play to the basket. In the offseason before his junior year, Roper worked on dribbling right, then pulling up for jump shots.
Roper led Irmo to the Class 4A state championship as a junior, to the state semifinals as a senior and finished second in program history to BJ McKie with 1,698 points.
Still, there were doubters.
“Because of that size liability, not because of athletic ability, in the ACC, everybody had doubts,” Whipple says. “I had doubts he would be able to do it as a freshman. Luckily, he got the opportunity.”
Roper seized that opportunity, primarily as an off-guard. He played an average of 23 minutes in 30 games and started the final nine games. He averaged eight points and led Clemson with 41 3-pointers off 41.4 percent shooting.
To further his development, Roper was asked by Brownell during the offseason to begin making the transition to playing more point guard.
“He has that mentality to score, so we have to be careful not to lose that,” Brownell says. “He sometimes takes things so literally that he goes one way or another. We’ll tell him we want him to handle the ball, get us into our offense, then he doesn’t look to score for awhile. He’s got to understand that he can do both.”
If Roper’s history tells us anything, no one should doubt that Roper will be able to do both.