The 5-10 Philander Smith Guard Who Led the Nation in Field Goal Percentage: Part 1

It’s not common to find high-volume shooters who connect on more than 75% of their field goal attempts over the course of a full college season. Rarer still are those players who can also connect on more than 90% of their free throws.

Rarest of all is the player who does all the above while standing less than six feet tall.

And yet, nearly 50 years, a Philander Smith College guard named Robert Thompson pulled off this possibly unmatched trifecta. In 1968-69, this 5-10 Texas native finished:

  • 8th in the nation in scoring with a 29.1 average per game
  • 1st nationally in field goal percentage at 77.8 %, completing 257 out of 330 field goals attempted
  • 1st nationally in free throw percentage at 97.1 %, completing 104 out of 107 free throws attempts

These are amazing statistics. In the NBA, the kinds of players who can shoot more than 70% from the field while also shooting at high volumes are in the Wilt Chamberlin realm—unstoppable giants camped out close to the rim. Yet those same giants often struggle with their free throws, shooting under 60%.

At the Division I NCAA level, the two highest field goal shooters have been:

  1. Davontae Cacok (UNC Wilmington): Shot 80% for 12.3 PPG in 2016-17
  2. Steve Johnson (Oregon State*): Shot 74.6% for 21 PPG in 1980-81

Yet both of these guys were fairly large dudes operating around the rim. Cacok stands 6-7, 240 pounds, while Johnson played at 6-10, 235 pounds. And both shot under 69% from the free throw line.

Meanwhile, the Division I record-holder in season free throw percentage is Missouri State guard Blake Ahearn, who hit 97.5% in 2003-4. But he also shot under 40% from the field.

Philander Smith plays in the NAIA, so how does Thompson’s feat stack up within that association’s all-time records? Well, it turns out his free throw record still stands today.  The runner-up is Klay Knueppel (Wisconsin Lutheran), who made 95% of his free throw attempts in 1989-1992.

The listed season field goal leader is James Cason, a Birmingham-Southern forward who made 78.2% of his 280 attempted field goal attempts in 1995-96. Cason, however, stood 6-5, making him one of the tallest players on the court during most NAIA games. Robert Thompson may hold the No. 2 ranking here. According to the NAIA record book, the No. 2 spot goes to Paul Peterson (Westbrook [Maine]), who shot 76.2% from the field in 1994-95. But Thompson’s 77.8% is superior, of course.

Of course, since the NAIA official record keepers didn’t include Thompson’s record, it’s possible they have missed others as well. But regardless of how high Thompson’s 77.8% ranks, it’s fair to say it’s an extremely impressive for any player—especially a 5-10, 158 pound guard.

I’ve found some old articles which delve deeper into Thompson’s historically great season. Stay tuned for those upcoming posts.


*My oh my how the Oregon State basketball program has fallen, going from No. 1 throughout much of that 1980-81 season to around 500-to-1 odds to win the 2018 national championship according to some betting lines.