Kay Felder is tired.
It’s mid-afternoon at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ practice facility, a $28 million building nestled among trees at the end of a seemingly infinite driveway in a nondescript Cleveland suburb. The team hasn’t played a game in five days, a rarity in the NBA. They finally return to action this evening (Tuesday, November 29), and during the morning shoot around, Felder shuffled sheepishly around the court, jersey untucked, making his 5-foot-9 frame appear even smaller than it actually is. In some ways, he looked like a college kid who woke up late, threw on an oversized hoodie and rushed across campus to take his biology final.
“I am not a morning person,” Felder said. “These early mornings have definitely been the biggest transition [from college to the NBA]. I do get up and make it work, though. Find ways to motivate myself to get out of bed.”
Sixteen games into his rookie season, Felder is still adjusting to a lot about the NBA. He seemed shocked that the Cavs didn’t have a game on Thanksgiving, despite the NBA traditionally giving teams that day off. When speaking about the similarities between Cleveland and his hometown of Detroit, Felder refers to the Cavs almost as a distant entity and not his current team (“the only thing [Cleveland] probably has over us is the Cavs.”) You can tell Felder is a rookie the same way you can tell it’s someone’s first time in New York City by the way they pronounce “Houston Street.”
This is the life of the 21-year-old the Cavs paid $2 million to the Atlanta Hawks to acquire on draft night. A three-year starter at little Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, Felder won the Horizon League Player of the Year award last season as a junior by averaging 24.4 points and 9.3 assists per game. Despite those gaudy numbers, he was a relatively unknown commodity until Dec. 22, 2015, when Oakland faced off against then-No. 1-ranked Michigan State at the Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the Detroit Pistons. In that nationally televised game, Felder went scorched earth on the Spartans, pouring in 37 points on an array of jumpers and long-distance bombs, pushing MSU to overtime before Oakland finally fell by 6 points.
Overnight, Felder went from small school, undersized point guard to The Dude Who Almost Dropped 40 on Michigan State. His phone wouldn’t stop pinging with Twitter notifications, including one from a soon-to-be Hall of Famer.
“The Allen Iverson tweet [was the coolest], most definitely. A Hall of Famer, all-time great. That was like, ‘alright, I’ve got something special going on here,’” Felder said.
Then Felder jumped 44 inches at the NBA Pre-Draft Combine, the second highest level ever recorded, earning some love from Draymond Green, with whom he’s been friends since the 8th grade. Felder’s name started buzzing all over again.
But when you’re 5-foot-9 in a forest of giants, you wear your height on your chest like a scarlet letter. Teams shied away, and Felder had to wait until deep into the second round before the Cavs paid the Hawks to select him with the 54th overall pick. Now in Cleveland, a man used to playing 30-plus minutes a night at Oakland has appeared in just six of the Cavs’ first 16 games. Mostly, he rides the bench for the reigning NBA champions.
“I knew coming in, leaving school early, it wasn’t going to be easy,” Felder said. “It’s definitely been difficult. It’s been hard on me, but I don’t let it get me down. It’s really about being patient and waiting your turn.”
Felder has leaned heavily on the advice of Green, another second-round pick who had to wait his turn to shine.
“[Green] said ‘Keep your work ethic up, and when you get your chance to play, you make people wonder why they didn’t pick you high. Attack everybody, don’t hold nothing back.’ Just like he does.”
Though playing time has been scarce, Felder’s move from small college to the pros was made easier by the similarities between his hometown and his new city. Felder’s family came with him to Cleveland, a support structure that has helped the rookie feel like he’s not totally on his own.
“We’re right by the lakes, bi-polar weather. All the food places close early, which is crazy,” Felder said of Detroit and Cleveland. “I ride through neighborhoods and see abandoned houses, here and Detroit. So it’s pretty much the same to me.”
As Felder patiently waits his turn to grab hold of the backup point guard spot behind Kyrie Irving, Cavs assistant coach Phil Handy is working furiously to hone Felder’s best weapon: his jump shot off the pick and roll. Using cones to mimic a teammate setting a pick, Handy pushes Felder through a series of options, whether he’s dribbling around the pick and pulling up in the lane or faking one way and stepping back to shoot. It’s a breathless exercise, full of unintelligible basketball language, rapid hand signals and constant repetition. It’s exhausting to watch, but Felder runs through it with minimal mistakes, much to the approval of Handy.
“I can be so effective in [the pick and roll], coming off and reading guys and seeing what guys are open or if I have an open shot,” Felder said. “I use my quickness and my speed to my advantage. If I can hit that pull-up jumper, that can be my money shot.”
Watching Irving, who is a wizard at manipulating the pick and roll himself, has been a huge advantage for Felder, too. The man he calls “Two” has encouraged him to stay relentless and remain unafraid of any opponent.
“I know it’s hard for him because when he came into the league, he didn’t really have anyone to look up to,” Felder said of Irving. “But he’s been doing a great job of being competitive with me at all times.”
By the end of the season, Felder hopes to eliminate “DNP-Coach’s Decision” from his box scores. In a tone that you can’t tell whether he’s serious or kidding, he even says he wants to supplant Irving and LeBron James as the face of the Cavs. But right now, all he can think about is sleep.
“That’s the key to a long career!” Felder yells to Handy as he walks out of the gym.
“What is, practice?” Handy calls after him.
“Nope. Rest!” Felder responds with a smile.
All Handy can do is shake his head, unable to shield the grin spreading across his face. Rookies will be rookies.