In his junior year last season, Northern Kentucky center Jalen Billups led the nation in field goal percentage at 69.6%. So far this season, the senior is averaging 63.2% from the field, as he is attempting nearly two more field goals per game. Keep in mind that he is also playing in a much more difficult Horizon League, instead of the Atlantic Sun. He is also at the top of teams scouting reports. There are some players in which coaches have no idea what they will get them on any given night. Billups is the antithesis of that type of up-and-down player. Excluding his true freshman season, Billups has averaged between 5.2 and 5.9 rebounds per game each season, between 1.1 and 1.6 blocks, and his free throw percentage has been somewhere in the 60’s (which is not bad for a big man). Billups is averaging a career high 13.7 points per game this season. This average by itself is very good, but not mind-blowing. What makes it such is that Billups only averages 20.5 minutes per game. Nobody in college basketball makes the most of his time on the court than this master of the low post. Perhaps that is because he is lucky to still be playing basketball.
Three years ago, Jalen Billups collapsed on the court during practice. It was not because he was dehydrated or tired, but because of a serious heart ailment. Most have heard of the tragic stories of athletes collapsing and dying during workouts or games, most notably Loyola Marymount’s Hank Gathers in 1990. But thanks to advances in modern medicine, Billups had a small defibrillator implanted inside his bulky chest to ensure his heart maintains a normal rhythm. He was granted a medical redshirt for that season, preserving three more years of eligibility as a Norse. Billups, who is from nearby Cincinnati, has become an excellent basketball player not only due to his physical skills. But because he plays with the fearless mindset that he is fortunate to still be playing the game…and to even be alive after such a scary incident.
Let’s go back to the stats and compare Billups to the Horizon League’s leading scorer, Kay Felder. The Oakland point guard is averaging 25.6 points per game, but he plays a whopping 37.2 minutes per game. His adjusted 40 minute ppg average is about 27.5. Meanwhile, Billups’ 40 minute ppg average is 26.7. So per 40 minutes played, Felder is averaging less than a point more than Billups. For rebounding, Billups is averaging 10.9 per 40 minutes played. Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Matt Tiby, who leads the Horizon League in rebounding at 8.7 rpg, is only averaging 11.4 rebounds per 40 minutes.
The main reason that Northern Kentucky is off to a surprising 4-5 start in Horizon League play is because of Billups. His play on the court is as consistent as the constant beat of a heart.