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UNC’s Jalek Felton is ‘that guy’ for coach Roy Williams

North Carolina’s Jalek Felton, left, passes around Bucknell’s Bruce Moore, middle, to teammate Luke Maye on Nov. 15.
North Carolina’s Jalek Felton, left, passes around Bucknell’s Bruce Moore, middle, to teammate Luke Maye on Nov. 15. rwillett@newsobserver.com

All of Roy Williams’ teams at North Carolina have seemed to have at least one – that one player who drives Williams a little bit mad. These are never poor players. To the contrary, they’re often among the most talented on the team.

But they just … do things sometimes, or don’t do them … that drive Williams a tad crazy. These players are likely familiar to those who closely follow UNC basketball. Last season, Kennedy Meeks was that guy, though he finally put together his most complete season.

The year before that, it was Brice Johnson, and perhaps nobody has ever been “that guy” more than Johnson was. Indeed, when Meeks and Johnson were together, on the same team, they perhaps created the best “that guy” combination in Williams’ 15 seasons at UNC.

At times, they simply drove Williams crazy, and it led to comedic moments and sound bites. Like, that one time a couple of years ago when Williams told Johnson and Meeks that they were “one-arm swingers.” What did that mean exactly?

“Trash men,” Meeks said at the time, painting the image of a couple of tall, large basketball players hanging with one arm off of the back of a garbage truck while their other arm swung about between stops to pick up trash cans from the curb.

And so Williams always seems to have “that guy” or “guys” and this season it is becoming clear that Jalek Felton, the talented freshman guard, is indeed becoming that guy. The earliest evidence of this development came during Williams’ preseason news conference.

It was then when Williams said that Felton might just be the most talented player on the team. There was a “but,” though – that being that Felton didn’t understand defense, didn’t understand focus and didn’t understand hard work.

“If I can get him to be more focused and tougher,” Williams said, “I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player and really help us.”

If that sounds familiar, it should, because it’s the same sort of thing Williams said for years about Johnson and Meeks, and about P.J. Hairston years ago, and about any number of other players, both at UNC and Kansas. And now Williams is saying it about Felton.

The most recent example of Williams’ tear-him-down-build-him-up approach with Felton came after UNC’s 96-72 victory at Stanford on Monday night. In the final seconds of that game, Felton had the ball on the right wing. He blew past his defender, raced toward the basket and dunked.

It was quite the authoritative dunk. It made the crowd roar. It made the players on the UNC bench rise from their seats and jump about in celebration. And it displeased Williams, who moments later apologized to Jerod Haase, the Stanford coach who played for Williams at Kansas and later served as his longtime assistant.

“I told him that I was sorry that Jalek dunked the ball there at the end,” Williams said. “We didn’t need to do that. And he said, ‘That doesn’t make any difference.’ And when it happens to me, it never bothers me, either, but I know it does some people. But Jalek showed a lot of explosiveness going to the basket.”

There was a quick pause, and then: “If he had ran back on defense like that, I’d have played him more.”

It’s likely only a matter of time before Felton becomes an integral part of this team. He’s probably too talented not to. But he’s not there yet. His minutes have decreased in each of UNC’s first three games, from 22 in the season-opener against Northern Iowa, to 15 against Bucknell, to 14 against Stanford.

And what he did late in that victory on Monday night likely doesn’t help his case for additional playing time. Clearly, Williams is still trying to teach Felton about the things Williams talked about while back: defense, focus, playing hard. And, perhaps, when it’s OK to dunk and when it’s not.

Felton understands. He recently acknowledged that he’s Williams’ “guy” this season. He said Williams is on him “every day, all day.” He knew, too, about the history – that Williams has treated players like Johnson and others in similar ways, and that every season Williams seems to have “that guy.”

“I’m now one of those,” Felton said, with a touch of good-natured humor.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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