The University of Oakland Golden Grizzlies were an odd sight to behold this year. By KenPom’s ratings, the team was 19th in opponent-adjusted offense, and 229th in adjusted defense. They were tenth in “tempo”, or possessions per forty minutes. The majority of their field goal attempts came in transition, with just about every player in the rotation able to make shots, draw fouls or do both. Shooter Max Hooper (46 percent on threes this year) sprinted through the half court around dribble handoff and pick and roll action at the top of the key, generally orchestrated by 5-9 point guard Kay Felder.
That was usually enough; just shove points down the opponents’ throats until they tapped out. The team scored the most unadjusted points per game in the nation, and Kay Felder was their little engine that could. Felder was named the Horizon League Player of the Year, averaging a 24-9-4 with a couple steals and solid efficiency. He has the physical profile of someone like Isaiah Thomas or Ty Lawson, gives effort on defense, and led a ridiculous offense to a Vegas 16 championship after failing to make either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.
So why is he sitting in the fifties on most 2016 NBA Draft boards?
What’s immediately striking about Felder is his proclivity toward contact even as such a small player. He got to the line eight times per game for a .461 FTr, per Basketball-Reference. That’s a great skill to have as someone who lacks the athleticism to go over, around or past defenders. It’s important to highlight that here as well — Felder is not a guy, even as a small guard, who possesses the foot speed to use his first step to blow by other guards.
He has mastered a nice little jab step to pair with his forceful dribble and slick handle, and puts his back on defenders creatively to maneuver through the lane and create space. The motion and cross-matching that Oakland forced on opposing defenses often left Felder in space or attacking a bigger defender right as he got the ball. That’s an excellent call by Greg Kampe, and one that NBA staffs should take note of if they want to take a chance on Felder.
On drives to the hoop, he can be creative, and is adept at getting his shot up over rim protectors, but too often flips up shots that have no hope of falling. His touch is visible, but when you careen toward the baseline and throw a layup over your shoulder, the possession is already over. If he balances out that part of his game with more passing, he’ll better grease the cogs of an NBA offense:
His nine assists per game are flashy, but not indicative of how he’ll distribute at the next level. More than any aspect of his game, the assist numbers are a direct product of the pace and style that Oakland played. Felder was often asked to merely bounce the ball to someone coming around a pick, cutting to the hoop, or running open in transition. To make use of a nice phrase, his passes were rarely “next level”; he didn’t throw guys open like a point guard should.
It’s difficult to get overly excited about Felder’s chances in the NBA because while there is modern precedent for players his height being successful, that success is often predicated upon overwhelming quickness (Lawson) or darting body control (Thomas). Kay Felder has neither, and his shot-making is not enough to overcome that simple truth.
For as closely as he fits into many stereotypes for small score-first point guards, Felder’s effort is enough to flip that script a little on the defensive end. He rarely gets lulled to sleep off-ball; always attentive, taking advantage of the freedom Kampe’s loose zone scheme offered him, and playing the passing lanes. He made plays not common for players of his stature in creating transition looks:
However, that lack of foot speed comes back to haunt Felder on-ball; even as a small player with a lower center of gravity, he gets beaten consistently off the dribble. When it only takes an elbow or a shove to get you out of position, you can’t afford to lose as step- and Felder often does. He can get downright knocked down by screens, and is rarely going to be able to contest a shot. At the next level, he’s bound to get torched if he’s posted up, driven on, or shot over; it’s going to be hard for him to survive on a nightly basis if he can’t at least stay in front of his man and poke at the ball.
That torching won’t be for a lack of effort, though, and one place where that effort manifests itself is his transition defense. It’s clear that Felder got used to timing and decision-making in double time while he was playing at Oakland, such that he can make a difference as a last line of defense in the fast break:
Unfortunately, the second clip highlights exactly why he’ll likely never be a difference maker on defense, however obvious the conclusion; he’ll never get up as high or shove as hard as other players. Nevertheless, that leaping ability and timing in doing so is valuable, especially on the glass. Felder has shown an aptitude and vision for rebounding that is rare for a guard. He nabs a lot of balls that other guys can get to, reaching or jumping just past them to do so.
Again, though, that all becomes so much faster at the next level — he’s not out-hustling Tristan Thompson for a rebound anytime soon, but the rebounding is another skill that allows him to work hard on defense and earn himself further offensive production. That’s important.
Watching extended tape on Felder was a nice reminder of why he’s a fringe NBA prospect despite his monstrous production this year. He’s not Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum or Elfrid Payton, despite what his gaudy numbers in a small, mid-major, in an unheralded conference might have you believe. He lacks the athleticism of Payton and Lillard and the shooting stroke of McCollum.
Take all of the work those guys have to do on defense and multiply it by about three and you’re left with the deficiencies that Felder must overcome. It’s going to take a lot of work, but there’s only so much trying you can do as a 5-9 guard.