Jason Conley didn't know any of the people who patted him on the back and shook his hand last summer after games in the famed Jabbo Kenner league in Washington, D.C., and they had no clue who he was, though they knew the slender 6'5" swingman could play. Conley soared to throw down alley-oops, drilled three-pointers and slashed through traffic in a league filled with players from Georgetown, Kentucky, Temple and other prominent colleges. Afterward the fans routinely asked, Where are you from? "When I told them I went to VMI," says Conley, "they all gave me this strange look, like they'd never heard of the place."
Conley won't have to worry about being unknown much longer. A redshirt freshman, he's the most exciting player ever to play at Virginia Military Institute. Operating in the Keydets' wide-open offense, he was leading the nation in scoring (30.2 points a game) at week's end. If he continues to do so through the end of the season, he'll become the first freshman to lead the NCAA in that category. Conley has had some of his best games against the 9-14 Keydets' biggest opponents, including 24 against Kentucky, 25 against Virginia and 38 against Villanova. "He's a player," says Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince. "We knew from the tape that he was good, but sometimes you can't tell how good a guy is until you get on the court."
Conley isn't likely to get a swelled head at VMI. He wakes up at 6:30 a.m., shares a cramped room with three other students and receives only an hour of free time per day. Ask him about the two stripes on the sleeves of his uniform jacket, and he beams with pride at attaining the rank of corporal this year, an honor that 50 students applied for and only nine received. "A lot of kids take shortcuts or are worried about themselves," says VMI coach Bart Bellairs. "This kid is doing things the right way."
Conley's rise has been anything but easy. He attended St. John's Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md., a high school powerhouse, as a junior, backing up future ACC recruits Damien Wilkins ( N.C. State and now Georgia) and Jason Capel ( North Carolina). For his senior year he transferred to Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md., where he blossomed. He signed with VMI, the only Division I school to seriously recruit him, but failed to attain the minimum SAT score needed to qualify for a scholarship. (A dyslexic, Conley has needed extra time to take tests since childhood.) He spent a postgrad year at Millersburg (Ky.) Military Academy but still came up short on his SATs, so he went to VMI and sat out last season as a partial qualifier.
Being on the sidelines was difficult for Conley, but he made the most of it. He ran for sophomore class president (making it into the final 20 candidates), earned a 2.5 GPA and settled on psychology as his major. He also improved his jumper and excited VMI fans with dunking exhibitions before home games. Now that he has proved he can play against the best, he has faced questions about whether he will transfer. Conley says he's staying put because he has grand plans for himself and the school that gave him a chance.
"When I graduate from here, I want to look back and see VMI on television, right up there with the ACC, Big Ten and SEC," he says. "That's important. I don't want the fame to stop with me."