Interview with Raymond Felton's coach

Latta's Stephen Smith

The following is the transcript of an interview conducted with Stephen Smith, head coach at Latta (SC) High. How long have you been involved in the coaching and development of Raymond?

Coach Smith: Well, I'm going to give credit where it's due. His father, who plays ball at 43 years old-still a very good ball player, believe it or not, has been nurturing [Raymond] since he was 4 years old, before I even knew he existed. Me and Raymond (Sr.) have been friends for a long time but he's been working with him since he was 4 years old. And he's really been exceptional, for his age, since he got on the court.

He's played for me since the last part of his 8th grade year. I've seen a lot of progression. He came in as a middle school player, playing varsity-level ball, and averaged 16 points [per game] his freshman year-started and averaged 16 points/game. Last year he averaged 25 [per game] and we made it to the [South Carolina (1A)] state "Final Four" for the last two years. Lost to the eventual state champion by two points both times. Who was the champion?

Coach Smith: A team called "Scott's Branch," out of Summerton, South Carolina. They went to the state 3 years in a row and they won the last 2. Both times they defeated us in the semifinals to get there. Are you looking forward to seeing them again this year?

Coach Smith: They… I think their talent has dissipated. There were all seniors last year who actually played and they're gone and the coach has left… I don't think they are the same team, so, there's a chance we could see them in the playoffs in the early round, but we're not focused in on any one team. We're just trying to take each game, one-at-a-time, not looking forward to any one team. Late summer seamed to be a "breakout" time for Raymond. You've always known his potential, but what happened in late summer? Raymond "went off" and started attracting major attention.

Coach Smith: It's a combination. In August, at the Las Vegas "Big Time" shootout, AAU ball, he played with a team out of the beach. The Beach Ball Classic supports/sponsors a team-"Beach Ball Select" is the name of the team and they travel all over the country. They went to California, Las Vegas.

From what he [Raymond] said, and from what Coach Doherty said, he recognized him then. A lot of the major coaches were there and he had a freak out [performance] out there at the "Big Time" tournament. And he really wasn't on the map as far as "massively."

Coach Doherty said he was even looking at this one player but saw Raymond do some things and didn't know who he was, didn't know he existed, and he kept looking at him. He had to find out who he was. He quit looking at the one guy he was looking at [and] started concentrating on Raymond.

Once North Carolina starts looking at you-Coach Doherty was a new coach at North Carolina, but he's still "North Carolina"-and [Raymond] showed him what he could do. Hey, once they look at you, "you're on the map!" So from then on, he's basically been on the map. What did Coach Doherty say he noticed that caught his attention?

Coach Smith: What we know about Raymond-his complete floor game. The first day he saw him get a steal and then take it to the hole and finish it with a dunk. Then he saw him get another steal and take it to the hole and finish it with a dunk. Then he saw him take it inside and drive on some 6'11" guy, and finish it with his left hand. Then he saw him hit a three.

Okay, those three examples right there, show a lot about Raymond's game. He has a complete game. He can play some defense-anticipates the ball well. He can take it inside strong, even though he's not tall-6'0" - 6'1". He can mix it up inside. He can pull it up and shoot it in your face, so he has the complete package. As to basketball, what is Raymond's strongest part?

Coach Smith: His greatest strength? Well, I would say his greatest strength is his mental toughness. And, when I say that, I don't want to sound like that overshadows his athletic prowess. That's the point about it. He's so strong athletically in every aspect. But, some guys have athletic ability. I don't know if a lot of them have his same athletic ability, but some guys have a lot of athletic ability, but they might be lacking a little bit in confidence. They might get in a situation, and it's a tight game and they might back off and get lost in the shuffle. So he's ready for that.

You know, when the game is on the line, when you've got the tough competition, like at the "Beach Ball," that's when he just rises to another level. So I would say his greatest strength is his lack of fear. He goes up, he mixes it up, and not even just against the "big" opponents but, [against] some of the lesser teams, he's going to play the same game. When he steps on the court, he's ready to play! What would you like to see him improve on at the present?

Coach Smith: He has done this lately-he can shoot the basketball, but I wish he could shoot like his father-now this guy's an incredible shooter! I'm serious! But if he could get a little more consistent with his outside shooting… At times he can go 10 in a row, like he did against Lake View [1/30/01] with ten 3s in a row. He had 42 points a couple of weeks ago-uncanny shooting! But, it's going to be hard to shoot like that. Nobody can, I guess. But, still, if he can get more consistent with his "three," he'd be virtually unstoppable. What's his present field goal percentage?

Coach Smith: Before Friday, he's at 57% [from the floor]. How about his free throw percentage?

Coach Smith: 74%. …and his three point shooting percentage?

Coach Smith: 39%. You've coached a lot of kids. What do you think Raymond's potential is on the college level, from what you've seen over the years?

Coach Smith: How could he fit in there? Well, I really don't see-he's 16 years old-I've been able to go to some big-time college games lately. A lot of the… Were you at the North Carolina game Saturday?

Coach Smith: I was there. I was right behind the scorer's table. The whole team was. And that is probably as high a level of college ball as it gets. I can't sit here and say, "Yeah, Raymond can go out there right now and do that," because I respect what those guys can do-the time they put in. But, how much better can a 16-year-old kid be?

You haven't seen him play [yet], but I have and he has. I don't know how much better a 16-year-old kid can be than Raymond! We're talking humans here! Some things he does [are] just incredible, really, on a consistent basis. Some of the moves he makes, some of the ways he anticipates the ball-he just gets in those guys' heads.

We run a lot of pressing and trapping defenses and he's perfect for it. Friday night was a good example. The team played us tough in the first half and we just made up our mind that we were going to go out there and take it to them the second half. They shouldn't have been on the court with us [score-wise]. The referees kind of helped them. We were on their home court. He just got in those guys' heads, the way he anticipates steals, just kind of intimidating them, without bravado or anything, just the way he plays. What did you think of the game you saw on Saturday, Maryland at North Carolina?

Coach Smith: It was fantastic. I thought that UNC showed that they're a serious contender this year. They're number one right now and somebody has to be. And, you know how that goes; it really counts at the end. We're number one in 1A, that doesn't daunt me at all, because if you're not at the end of the season, it's doesn't really matter. It's kind of like an honor thing. What do you think was the key for Carolina in Saturday's game?

Coach Smith: I think that UNC, their defense was the key. Maryland has some outstanding shooters and I think if they [wouldn't] have put enough pressure on them, I think Maryland could've shot themselves back into the game. And they had a lot of shooters, like Dixon-he's a great shooter. And the guard. What's his name-Blake? He's a good shooter, a good ball handler. He doesn't look like it but he can flat out play!

But I think UNC emphasizes a lot of defensive pressure and I think, if you keep that pressure on a team, just methodically, systematically keep it on a team, it's going to wear them down eventually. And I just think that made a big difference. Plus, Capel had a career game! Try to stop a Joe Forte and concentrate on Haywood. He didn't score much-Brendan Haywood-but then you've got a guy like Capel, who was a high school All-American, but nevertheless, that was a career game. So when he does that, in fact those three 3s he had in succession broke it open. You described Raymond's game a bit ago. Break it down some more for us. What are some outstanding elements to his game?

Coach Smith: His passing. Like I said, he may go out there and once he gets his rhythm down on the shooting, you'll see that he can shoot the basketball. But you've seen others shoot before. But you'll notice his passing-how he gets his teammates involved in the game. How, even though he's scoring 28 points/game, he's not doing it [by] taking a shot every time he gets it. It's a 28 points that come within the flow of the game.

And it comes in all kinds of possible ways. He can score off of the offensive rebound. He can score just penetrating-taking his guy off the dribble. In the free throws. He can pull up and hit it.

Also, like I said, he's going to give the ball up on the break. He can set guys up which turns into two points for other guys. You just notice his passing and the way he involves his teammates in the game and his overall game. You're not going to leave here saying, "There's one good thing I like about him." You're going to like his overall game. What improvements has Raymond experienced over the past year?

Coach Smith: I would say, knowing what he has to do. Last year, at the state semifinals, he had 28 points, which is his average now. But, him still being young at that time (he's still young, but younger), I didn't think he realized how much we needed him. We needed more out of him that night. When I say "more," we kind of needed him to look for his shot. His mindset, his game is [to] "involve the teammates," get everybody involved, and certainly that does that a lot. If you notice our team, you'll notice we don't have just a one-man team. We've got a pretty decent little team. Is Latta High School a tall team?

Coach Smith: No. Never had height here. Guys in Latta don't grow tall. They don't grow, man. But we have a lot of scrappy, little, "go out there and get after those guys." And that's what we always have to go with. We have to play in accordance to the athletes we have.

But you'll notice that, he realizes now, at least we hope he realizes and we keep telling him, as far as some games such as the semifinal game, he's got to step up and look for his shot more. We may need him to get 50 [points] to get deep into the playoffs this year. Because some guys may not just be able to deliver, like a Raymond can. Raymond can play on any level. And we got guys that can go out there and do it, too. But there is a time when we're going to need him to look for his shot more. And at times he has known when to do that this year. What do you think next year, Raymond's senior year, will be like?

Coach Smith: Next year will even be more of a challenge for him than this year. We're losing a few seniors this year. So, Chris Page, who's a very good basketball player - he's been playing for me-starting four years. He's helped take a lot of pressure off of Raymond and he'll be gone next year. Three other seniors who get a lot of playing time will be gone next year. And it's going to be that much more of the weight that's going to be on Raymond. But I'm sure he'll meet the challenge of it. I know he will! Nevertheless, it will be more of a challenge for him, having to carry more of the load next year. Tell me about how he works out and approaches it.

Coach Smith: That goes back to what I said about him and his father coming up all of his life. He used to go out there at night and shoot 2- 3- 400 shots after practice. Do his homework, then go shoot… shoot… shoot. And I know a lot of people (See, I'm not from Latta. I live in Mullins which is 15-20 miles away) but people always tell me they'll ride by and they'll see him out there at night, in the dark, shooting. So that has played as much a part to get him where he is as anything.

His work ethic is solid. He understands that he's getting a lot of publicity now. He's kind of "on the map" now. People expect him to go and do big things at the college level but he'll tell you himself he hasn't played one day of college ball. He has to go out there and still prove that he can do what people are anticipating him doing. How's he doing in the classroom?

Coach Smith: He's doing well. He's over a 3.0 average through three years. And he's doing well. He's [taken] the SAT and he's waiting on his scores and he anticipates qualifying and everything should work out. UNC has done so, but tell us some of the colleges that are expressing an interest in Raymond.

Coach Smith: I would say who has shown as much interest [as UNC] is South Carolina (the Gamecocks), Clemson, Georgia. Now, those schools have shown probably as much interest as North Carolina, or close to it. Certainly South Carolina. Those are the four main schools. Those are the schools he lists as his top choices and you know, I just follow suit, meaning I talk to some of the coaches from time to time. I know they're interested.

Hey, if he opened the letters of all the schools that are writing, if he'd have time to respond to every school, they'd be interested too. You've got the Marylands, the Georgia Techs, Florida States, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Louisville, UMass… All of those schools are writing him. If he had the time to respond and realistically could include all of them as a serious choice, they'd all be seriously interested, too. But [he] just doesn't have that much time in a day. When does Raymond want or expect to make a commitment?

Coach Smith: I do not know exactly. What schools have offered him a scholarship?

Coach Smith: All those schools I just mentioned… UMass and Georgia Tech?

Coach Smith: No, no, no. They have just shown interest. Clemson wants him. Have I seen the coach offer officially? No, I know they want him. What scholarships are on the table?

Coach Smith: I feel pretty sure he can sign with any one of those schools-commit to any one of those schools. Not to the ones he hasn't responded to. Those four. I feel that he can commit to any one of those schools at any time. Can you imagine being a sixteen year old and have all this interest?

Coach Smith: Yes, that's mind-boggling because, see, we've never had anybody-I've been around here all of my life pretty much, for a long time. How long have you been here?

Coach Smith: Well, I've been in Latta for eight years. I'm from Mullins, which is in the area, lived there all my life except for when I was in college and in the Army. But I can't remember anybody from the Pee Dee area that were going to the North Carolina Tar Heels playing ball. What schools and coaches have been to see Raymond play?

Coach Smith: Eddie Fogler; Harrick-Jim Harrick; Doherty; an assistant, Orlando Early from Charlotte; Kentucky's assistant coach saw him at the "Beach Ball;" Virginia Tech's assistant coach saw him at the "Beach Ball;" Florida State's assistant saw him at the "Beach Ball;" Clemson's saw him at the "Beach Ball;" Larry Shyatt has been here; Rollie Massamino has visited the school, from Cleveland State-he's gotten a slew of people here! So, Coach Doherty…

Coach Smith: He came. Have any of the assistants been here (Coaches Wojcik and Quartlebaum)?

Coach Smith: Yes, they've seen him. Who's expressed the strongest interest in Raymond, in your opinion?

Coach Smith: I would say, from what I've seen, South Carolina and North Carolina. That would be the two that have expressed the strongest interest in him. If not "where," what type of basketball would be best for Raymond, in your opinion? For example, the half-court game, the transition game…?

Coach Smith: Well, North Carolina scored 96 points the other day-that's a lot of points. I think he can play any style. Anytime you get 96 points in regulation, whether high school or college-shine, even the pros nowadays-- that's a lot of points and you've got to run to get to the points. I didn't see anything Saturday that made me think that's not the right style for him. Of course, lots of schools, when they have the athletes-I'm sure South Carolina would like to run, too. Transition-type ball is probably the most appealing ball that Raymond would like.

Coach Smith: Having played years ago, you get more creative in that type [of ball]. Where did you play?

Coach Smith: I played some. I played high school and I played college for two years at Fayetteville State. How often does Raymond hear from UNC?

Coach Smith: They fax him every day. They can't call him, which they don't. They fax me and they can call me and I relay messages because, being a junior he can't receive the direct calls from them. They can get in touch with him via mail and faxes and through me. And hears from them quite often. Does Raymond express how he feels about North Carolina?

Coach Smith: Well, I know he's strong on North Carolina. He's always said, and this has already been printed, that he had a dream to play for North Carolina. Does that translate into him signing? I don't know. We'll know whenever he commits but he has said that in the past that he has had a dream, which I think a lot of kids around here do, to play for North Carolina. It's as high a profile a program as there is anywhere. It's on TV. It's amazing really. And see, that plays a part in it. They have a built-in advantage, being that they are the Tar Heels and, what can you say? What do you think Raymond should look for in a college program?

Coach Smith: You got to look to see academics. I mean you go to college for the academics. We often forget that. Because, maybe one day he'll have a chance to use his basketball skills for money, but you never know. So you want to think in terms of what kind of academic programs do they have and that suit his needs. And then, the college environment. Is it a place that he can feel comfortable at? And then you want to look at the basketball program. Obviously, the schools that are recruiting him have probably unlimited budgets to bring in the best type of everything he needs for basketball. I would say, in that order: academics, the whole college life, and then basketball. Who's helping Raymond with his decision about where to play ball and go to school?

Coach Smith: I think that's a family decision. Like I said, I'm kind of like a liaison. They call me and write me and I give messages. His father told me that Raymond basically will make that decision. They'll have input and he's even said, I have some input. But it's going to come down, I think to Raymond, with all the advice he gets from his parents and the little bit of advice they want to hear from me. And he'll basically be making that decision. When you look at college and pro players, to whom would you compare Raymond's game?

Coach Smith: I would say he compares with Baron Davis. Baron, he'll take it inside and throw it down on your head, pull up for the long-range shot. He runs the court well. He's about that size and strong. I see some Marbury in him, but of course Marbury didn't play but one year. Those types of ball players that have got the outside shot like was shown yesterday in the All-Star game. Penetrate, create, finish-that type of game.

Current college players? I would say, if I could look at someone that actually stayed in college long enough, I see some similarities in; he's kind of like a bigger, more athletic-what's the guy from Wake Forest? Robert O'Kelley?

Coach Smith: Yes. He's more athletic and just a higher leaper. His shot reminds me of him. What are Raymond's plans for summer ball?

Coach Smith: He'll be going with the Beach Ball Select team again… They're going to Florida in April. They're probably going to do the same circuit they did last year. Atlanta, The South Carolina State championships in Columbia. Bob Gibbons. Fall Ball at the Beach. They'll go to California, Vegas for the "Big Time." Bob Gibbons has another tournament in Greensboro. I think it was new this past year. It was at UNC-Greensboro. It had a lot of teams and a lot of coaches. What's Raymond's long-term aspirations?

Coach Smith: Well, it's obvious. He wants to go the League. He's a person who, looking at it the way it is now, how can you say he doesn't have a chance to do it? Of course, a lot can happen between now and then, but if you need to be focused to do it, and stay grounded and levelheaded, he'll make it because he's certainly that.

For a 16-year-old kid to have all this attention, that's another thing that's so good about him. He has not let it go to his head. It's amazing really. It'd be a lot for a grown person to handle, much less a 16-year-old kid. See, here in Latta, everybody knows him and has been knowing him. In Dillon I asked the hotel receptionist if she knew Raymond Felton and she had heard of him! What's Raymond's present height and weight?

Coach Smith: 6'1" and about 180. That's about what he is. Is he still growing?

Coach Smith: Well, it looks like he might have grown an inch this season. They had him listed at Nike at 5'11" with shoes off, but you play with shoes on. That's how I list him. He could get to 6'2". What's his normal weight at the beginning of the season?

Coach Smith: He maintains around 175 - 180. Has he been timed in the 40?

Coach Smith: I haven't but the football coach has. He didn't play football this year… I think he was as fast as the fastest kid on the football team. 4.4 - 4.5. What's the local paper that covers Raymond's games?

Coach Smith: The Dillon Herald. Do you have anything else you'd like to add about Raymond?

Coach Smith: I think I've pretty much covered it. He's a very humble kid, with what's going on. If anybody can carry the load, he can.

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