Phil Taylor has not had your typical journey to the top of the college basketball world. The former Division I guard leads the NCAA in scoring, tops in all three divisions at 34.9 points a game. But he’s arrived there a little late, and mostly under the radar at Division II Shorter University in the small town of Rome, Georgia.
Taylor’s journey began in 2009 at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. He was heavily sought after and eventually committed to Florida International, where he was recruited by NBA legend Isiah Thomas, then the head coach.
“He could really shoot and score the basketball,” Thomas said of Taylor. “I went to watch him a couple times at Wheeler. His competitive drive and his willingness to work really attracted me to him just as a person who wanted to compete. He was small in stature, but he was big in heart.”
The 5-foot-10 Taylor was drawn to FIU specifically because of Thomas and his Hall of Fame career.
“Growing up, being a small guard, he was one of the greatest guards to ever play the game,” Taylor said. “I had numerous schools I could have gone to in the SEC and ACC, but I knew wherever I went I was going to develop into the player I was going to be. I just felt that he was going to take my game to the next level. He taught me a lot on and off the court.”
After biding his time as a freshman, Taylor made his presence felt as a sophomore. Taylor scored 13.5 points a game that season — with eight 20-point performances — while averaging three assists a game.
“Like most kids coming up in college, it takes awhile until you get acclimated to the campus and the academic work,” Thomas explained. “Once he was able to balance all of that and be focused on playing on the floor, he became a great player for us. I thought we were really close to turning the corner. Phil was the leader of that group.”
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Taylor earned third team All-Sun Belt honors. But Thomas and FIU would surprisingly part ways after that year. A disappointed Taylor walked away, too, taking a couple of years to do some soul searching.
“It was nothing against the new coach, but I committed to Isiah,” Taylor said. “I just wanted to stay with that decision. I was getting my mind right. Taking that time off, I was just thinking about the game. I knew this is what I loved and what I really wanted to do. You don’t get many opportunities to get a second chance.”
In somewhat of a homecoming, Taylor returned to Georgia to lace them up for the Shorter Hawks. Rome is a little more than an hour’s drive from Wheeler High.
“They were really interested in doing whatever it took to get me here,” Taylor said. “I had other schools as well, but Tyler Murray is great guy and coach. I meshed with the coaching staff really well, and thought the players were cool. I went with who I felt was interested in me the most.”
Taylor, who turned 25 earlier this month, had an outstanding return to the court, starting all 29 games last season and leading the Hawks in scoring (25.1 points per game) and assists (4.6 per game). He also finished third in rebounding with 5.6 a game.
Thomas was a huge influence in Taylor’s basketball life, but he wasn’t the only one. Taylor’s godfather was another undersized guard with scoring ability and a ton of grit. He became one of the legends of the Big East and an NBA Hall of Famer: Allen Iverson.
“Growing up in New York my dad played basketball for awhile, so they had mutual friends,” Taylor said. “I never really got to watch Isiah play live, but I was able to watch [Iverson].
“Who didn’t love Allen Iverson? He was one of the best players in the world. I modeled my game after him so much, I wear No. 3 just like him. He always told me, ‘Play every game like it’s your last.'”
This is only half of Phil’s story. Head on over to NCAA.com for my full feature to find out more!