It won’t be long now, less than one year, before Jalek Felton is at North Carolina, where his uncle’s jersey hangs in the rafters high above in the Smith Center.
Felton has always been close with his uncle, Raymond, who’s remembered as one of the great point guards to play for the Tar Heels. Now their relationship has grown stronger, while the younger Felton has more often pictured himself on campus and in a UNC jersey, finally.
“All the time,” Jalek said on Wednesday when asked how often he finds himself looking ahead to his arrival at UNC. “Me and my uncle, I call him nights and just talk about it.”
A little more than 11 years ago, Raymond – Jalek simply calls him “Ray” – led UNC to the 2005 national championship. He’ll always be remembered for his role on that team, and before.
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Now, though, Raymond’s most important role – at least when it comes to his association with his alma mater – is that of a mentor to Jalek, the 6-foot-3 point guard from Mullins, S.C., who is considered among the best guards in the class of 2017. They talk daily, Jalek said, sometimes on the phone, sometimes through text messages, but “back and forth” regularly.
Jalek was speaking Wednesday after a game at an Under Armour All-American camp in Charlotte. It was another stop during a long summer of camps and tournaments and trips, a grind typical of the touted college basketball prospect.
He has stops left in Atlanta and then Orlando. And then it’s off to Gray Collegiate Academy in West Columbia, S.C., where Jalek will spend his senior year of high school. Jalek announced last month that he’d be transferring to Gray Collegiate, and on Wednesday he made the decision sound easy.
He praised the coaching there and said, “They expect the best out of me every day.”
“My coach passed away about three years ago, and that’s his nephew that’s coaching Gray Collegiate,” Jalek said. “I just kind of wanted to keep it in the family for his wife. They’re going through a hard time and stuff, so, just keep it in the family – keep it going.”
Wants to be pushed
Mainly, though, he’s going to Gray Collegiate to seek self-improvement – to prepare himself for what’s ahead, eventually, at UNC. He said his priorities this summer are to improve defensively and more effectively involve his teammates. He wants to decrease turnovers and not force things so often.
He wants to be pushed, too, he said, “Just to see what your heart really is.” He knows that’s what’s coming in about a year.
“Someone’s going to be on you about everything,” Jalek said, looking ahead to college.
Raymond has been on him, too. About time management, especially.
Jalek said he isn’t the biggest early-riser. He likes sleeping in, waking up slowly. Raymond, Jalek said, has tried to make a point: that approach won’t work in college, or beyond.
“And that’s just something like (mentally) I’ve got to work on,” Jalek said. “Because I hate getting up.”
Raymond isn’t the only one who has been providing Jalek advice. For a while now Jalek has attended pick-up games at UNC with his uncle. A couple weeks ago, Jalek said, he was playing in one of those games at the Smith Center.
His teammates, among others, included Raymond and Rasheed Wallace. Other NBA players, current and former, were on the court, too.
Plenty of questions
When Jalek first started participating in these games, more than a year ago, he was timid. That showed on the court, especially. Now it’s a thing of the past, he said.
Jalek said he rode with Raymond on the way to that pick-up game a couple weeks back. Jalek came prepared with questions, and not only for his uncle.
“It’s kind of weird a little bit,” Jalek said of being on the court with so many recognizable faces, players he grew up watching on TV. “I just asked them a lot of questions – how is it playing in the NBA as long as you played, overseas as long as you did – what was that experience like?
“What’s the biggest (transitions) you made from high school to college, to college to pros or college to overseas. Just different stuff … And they gave me (the answer of) just getting stronger. Like once you get to the college level, those guys are much stronger than guys out (here).
“There, you’re not getting by.”
Jalek committed to UNC during his sophomore season, in December 2014. At the time, UNC didn’t yet have a commitment from anyone in the class ahead of him.
Always open to listen
A pending NCAA investigation, and all the speculation that came with it, hindered the Tar Heels’ recruiting. And Jalek heard all the rumblings, too, about the possibility of significant sanctions, including the specter of a postseason ban for men’s basketball.
Other prospects in his class, he said, used to bring that up and ask him about it.
“Last year they asked me the whole thing that was going down with them, having to sit out that year, and I just told them it wasn’t true,” Jalek said.
It came up again, Jalek said, when he came to campus for that recent pick-up game.
“And (I) talked to coach and he said, ‘It’s over.’”
Though he’s been committed to UNC now for more than a year and a half, Jalek said he hasn’t been actively recruiting other prospects. It doesn’t come up much, he said.
Other schools, meanwhile, have continued to contact Jalek. He said he has continued to listen.
“I’m always open to listen,” he said.
Jalek used his relationship with Frank Martin, the South Carolina coach, as an example of the benefits of listening. Martin, he said, “gives me good knowledge all the time.”
There doesn’t seem to be a lack of it at Jalek’s disposal. There are the college coaches who call. There’s the new staff at Jalek’s new school.
And an uncle who just happened to help lead UNC to a national championship before beginning an NBA career that recently reached its 11th year. Raymond, too, has introduced his nephew to other valuable voices at UNC.
Jalek can tell the difference, he said. He tried to explain how the experience he has gained in those pickup games has changed him.
“Just my toughness, defensive-wise,” he said. “And they all say it. Me trying to score the ball, actually attacking them instead like my first time, I was just kind of laid back and just trying to fit in a little bit.
“But now I feel like I’m out here. And last time I went I actually competed with them, like I was on the floor. Because this time next year, I’ll be there.”