Jalek Felton is not the most important player on the Tar Heel men’s basketball team. He’s not the transcendent freshman that you build a complementary roster around, selling out for one run at a singular championship. He’s not a starter on this team, as a matter of fact, and he didn’t lead the Tar Heels in points in Saturday’s win over Ohio State, didn’t play the most minutes. But he did step up and change the game when his team needed him late in the first half.
With 8:04 remaining in the first half, Felton checked in with the scored tied at 17. After a Buckeye free throw, on one of his first touches, Felton committed a turnover that led to an Ohio State lay-up. Now, his team was down three. Joel Berry II was on the bench. Jalek Felton was running the show. No timeout was called, of course.
Felton came down and made a three to tie the game. After an Ohio State miss, Felton, got the defensive rebound, then hit from beyond the arc again. The Buckeyes would tie the score on a field goal and a free throw, but Kenny Williams found Felton for another three attempt that fell through. After an Ohio State offensive foul, Felton returned the favor, connecting with Williams for another three.
Moments later, Felton got another defensive rebound off a missed dunk. Drawing the defense with a behind-the-back dribble, he connected with Garrison Brooks for a lay-up. That forced a Buckeye timeout; Chris Holtmann couldn't wait for the official stoppage at the under-four mark.
In four minutes and 12 seconds of game time, Felton had turned the ball over, then hit three three-point shots, earned two defensive rebounds and two assists. He'd also helped his team turn a three-point deficit into an eight-point lead. Ohio State would never come closer than four again.
Felton would re-enter with 2:29 to play and almost immediately hit Cam Johnson for a three, and though it wouldn't go on the box score, he would make a pass that led to Sterling Manley getting fouled late in the half.
In the second half, Felton would log a pair of assists, another defensive rebound and go 1-2 from three in five minutes of action.
Felton was not on the floor down the stretch, as the Tar Heels - Berry, Theo Pinson, Williams, Cam Johnson and Luke Maye, primarily - took a ten-point lead and made it as many as 19 in what was ultimately an 86-72 win. But the game turned on his spark of play in the first half, and he gave fans a glimpse at his potential.
Ever the pragmatist, Roy Williams was balanced in his postgame comments about Felton, chiding his freshman for careless turnovers and hoping for growth. "Defensively, he's just got to get better," the head coach said. "He guards like I do, and I'm 67. When I was his age, I guarded a heck of a lot better than he does."
There were positives, however. "Four for five from the three-point line, that's pretty doggone good . . . I think that was huge for us, but he's got to keep maturing."
Williams also said Felton was banged up after diving on the floor for a ball during practice, "for the first time in his life. He's 18 years old. First time he's ever dove on the floor and he's hurt. He sucked it up and played today."
As I've often said, Williams knows which players he can challenge publicly, whose shortcomings he can talk to the media about, because he knows they'll hear them, and he knows they will respond. Felton does have to get better defensively, does need better movement and the same commitment on that end of the floor that he makes on the offensive end. And there's a reason that he wasn't on the court down the stretch. And trust, no one is rushing Joel Berry out the door, least of all me. But with Berry and Pinson at the podium postgame, it's important to recognize that the Tar Heel locker room was happier on Saturday than it was on Wednesday, in no small part due to the young man that is growing out of Uncle Raymond's shadow.
Jalek Felton's high points are going to be really fun to watch this year— Joe DiRienzo (@Joe_DiRienzo) December 23, 2017