BOZEMAN – Even the man himself – the uniquely gifted basketball player who could be voted America’s top small-college basketball player Monday – concedes he couldn’t see this coming, at least not as a wiry high school point guard five years ago.
Back then, at Missoula Sentinel, Zaccheus Darko-Kelly was an all-state player who would receive just one offer from a four-year school as a 6-foot-3 senior, from Montana Western. Overlooked? Even Darko-Kelly, who also was recruited by Dawson and Miles community colleges, says it wasn’t so.
“I wouldn’t say I was overlooked,” he said Sunday. “I don’t think my stats were, like, eye-popping.”
Today, eye-popping is just one adjective for Darko-Kelly.
The lithe 6-foot-6 junior wing now at Providence fashioned a season of firsts: First Argo player to be chosen first-team NAIA All-American, first to reach 700 points (701) in a single year despite a shortened season, first male to be NAIA Player of the Week three weeks running.
On Monday afternoon, Darko-Kelly – “Z” to everyone in Great Falls -- could add to a list of recurring accolades by winning the Bevo Francis Award, which honors the top small-college player from NCAA Division II down to the USCAA, more than 1,100 programs overall. From an original list of 100, Darko-Kelly remains among 14 finalists.
Given his 2019-20 achievements, it wouldn’t be an upset if he wins. Indeed, it might be a minor upset if he doesn't.
“I watched all the highlights of everybody nominated and I think he does have a great chance,” Providence coach Steve Keller said. “But there’s a lot of good players out there and I’m not quite sure how they evaluate everything. I can only go by what I see.”
What he sees is a modest, unassuming and popular player who led his team in every major statistical category as Providence bolted to a 15-0 start en route to a 24-8 overall mark. The Argos closed with a 69-65 loss to Carroll before the NAIA tournament was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Great Falls native, Darko-Kelly averaged 22.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals en route to winning Frontier Conference Player of the Year honors.
“A special player,” Keller said.
Concurs Montana Tech coach Adam Hiatt: "A fantastic player."
Truth be known, Darko-Kelly didn’t see this type of year coming either – not even after averaging 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds while earning second-team All-America honors as a redshirt sophomore at Western, his first college, and redshirting at Providence last season under transfer rules.
And not even after sprouting from 5-8 to 6-3 by his senior year at Sentinel and then to 6-6 at Montana Western.
“To be honest, no,” he said. “I knew I had a whole year to get better and focus on that, but I had no idea I’d put up this kind of numbers.”
Darko-Kelly traces his accelerated growth to Dexter Williams Jr. and Shyke Smalls, teammates at Western who arrived on campus with little fanfare and evolved into All-Americans. Like Darko-Kelly, Williams had one scholarship offer from a four-year school.
At Sentinel — Darko-Kelly moved to Missoula in seventh grade while his mom, Melissa Darko, earned a degree from Montana — his numbers weren’t as bland as he suggests. He averaged 15.8 points and five rebounds, earning first-team all-state honors.
When he signed with Western, Spartans coach Jay Jagelski told a Missoula TV station, “He’s quite a catch for Western.”
Even Western’s recruitment might’ve been something of an accident, though. Keller, who was Western’s coach at the time and also once coached girls and boys (assistant) at Helena High, was watching the Bengals play Sentinel in a Class AA state tournament game when Darko-Kelly caught his eye.
“I just could see a little bit of potential,” Keller said. “I’m always looking for players that have what I call huge upside down the road. He’s just one of those guys I thought would get better and better and better. And add the fact he grew three, four inches. That didn’t hurt.”
Even so, when Darko-Kelly looks back he realizes he didn’t have the fire required to stand out in college.
Williams and Smalls, he said, changed that.
“They just made me a tougher competitor,” Darko-Kelly said. “They were always giving me a hard time in practice, never taking it easy on me one-on-one.
“They put a little dog in me, you might say.”
When Keller left Dillon for Great Falls in March 2018, Darko-Kelly was soon to follow, lamenting friendships he was leaving behind. He was loyal to his coach but, above all, Great Falls was home.
His mom and step-dad both live there (his father, Steve Kelly, played basketball for Savannah State).
A year on the sidelines, Darko-Kelly said, helped him gain an understanding of the game's ebb and flow.
“I learned about momentum, the pace of the game, when to slow it down, when to attack, little things like that,” he said.
Naturally, Darko-Kelly’s exploits make him something of a folk hero in Great Falls.
Keller said kids follow him, teachers like him and his teammates appreciate him in part because as a point guard at heart he’s always looking to involve everyone. Darko-Kelly is also a frequent volunteer to help at other Argos sporting events while hanging with friends, his favorite activity aside from hoops.
“He knows how to treat people,” Keller said. “His mother has done a good job raising him and teaching him the right things, and he understands that. He gets it.”
How does Darko-Kelly keep an even keel amid the accolades?
“It’s been interesting,” he said. “I’ve never had this type of notoriety. But I think I’m just the same person. I don’t think any of this has changed me or will change me.”
Naturally, with his skill set, and with one more year of college to continue growth, Darko-Kelly has his sights set on playing for pay.
Keller says he has all the skill sets. At this juncture, it’s a matter of improving in every facet.
Specific areas for improvement, Darko-Kelly said, include filling out physically and honing ball-handling skills. The latter has required attention after rapid growth spurts increased the gap between his hands and the floor.
“And also continuing to develop a basketball IQ,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I have a professional basketball IQ, so I’m not all the way there yet.”
Said Keller: “The sky’s the limit for him. He just needs to keep working hard and improving his game.”
“Z” – pronounced "Za-KAY-us" from, he said, a biblically induced dream his mom had during childbirth – will continue to have that dog in him. It has, after all, gotten him to places he’d never imagined.
That could include national player of the year. Win it or not, he says, he appreciates supporting casts that harken back to high school, acknowledging that without their support, “I wouldn’t be here.”
Yes, Darko-Kelly can picture winning it. But the former wiry point guard would still pinch himself nonetheless.
“It’d be pretty wild,” he said.