Jalek Felton owned his mistakes Tuesday, saying he “made a couple of bad decisions” while at North Carolina before he was dismissed from both the basketball team and the university in the winter of 2018.
Felton, once a prized recruit at point guard, worked out for the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday, hoping to be selected in the June 20 NBA draft. He spent last winter playing professionally, first in Slovenia and then in Finland. He says that experience forced him to grow up in a hurry because his basketball career was at risk.
“It taught me a lot,” said Felton, nephew of former Tar Heels and Charlotte Bobcats guard Raymond Felton. “It made me grow up fast, and realize how quickly something can be taken away from you. I appreciate the game a lot more now.”
Felton was suspended in January 2018 and told to leave North Carolina’s campus after half a season with the Tar Heels. Neither the university nor Felton have specifically addressed why Felton was suspended. He initially retained an attorney to challenge the university’s action, then chose to play professionally, rather than wait out seeking a reinstatement or transferring to another school.
He played two games with Union Olimpija, a pro team in Slovenia, then moved on to a team in Finland, BC Nokia. Moving to Slovenia was a shock, but educational, too: This was not the developmental atmosphere of college basketball, it was competing against much older players in a country where few spoke English. No pampering and little, if any, patience.
“The first month was tough but it taught me to fight through adversity. I didn’t have momma and daddy to hold my hands. I had to get it on my own. It helped me to be a man today, to walk in here (for a draft workout) on my own,” said Felton, who grew up in West Columbia, S.C.
Even with just a half-season of college experience, Felton had skills — explosiveness to the rim and passing — that were valued overseas. As Felton observed, Europe is full of good shooters, and those teams need playmakers to penetrate defenses and get those shooters the ball.
In seven games in Finland, five of them starts, Felton averaged 16 points, 7.3 assists and 3.6 rebounds. He saw an intensity among those pros in their 20s and 30s that he had to learn to match.
“They look at basketball differently than we do. They know they’re not as talented, so they play really hard and really aggressive. Some of them have that talent, with that aggression, (so they are) really good,” Felton described.
“Sometimes you’re (playing against) a veteran who is 30; 10 years, 12 years (of pro experience), and you’re battling that every day.”
Felton appreciates what he learned from Europe, but he hopes not to make that the pattern of his career. He believes he has a chance to be among the 60 players drafted into the NBA in June.
“If not that, a summer-league invite,” Felton said of his plan. “Worst-case scenario, the G-League.”
He’s always leaned on his uncle, now playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, for advice. What did Raymond say about draft preparation?
“He told me to get in shape ASAP,” Jalek Felton recalled, “because if you’re not in shape, you’ll bum it.”