There are so many places to find good news these days that it feels a little decadent. It all begins with Roy Williams, of course, and the remarkably immediate change of environment that has resulted around the program. It continues to the signing of promising and highly touted recruits like Marvin Williams and J. R. Smith. It extends to Sean May's mended metatarsals, Damian Grant's mended knees and thumb, and Rashad McCants's mended spirit. There is the early suggestion of offseason improvement by key supporting players like David Noel and Byron Sanders. And then there is the leadership that will come from upperclassmen Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott, and Jackie Manuel, all of whom have survived the worst years in Carolina basketball history with ability and character intact, and all of whom are ready to exact revenge on the competition that has delighted in their misfortune.
And then there is Raymond Felton. The point guard. The floor general. The indispensable leader. The extension of the coach on the floor. Felton was all those things and more in his freshman season, and yet in the midst of all the distractions last year, you could not help but know he had more to give--more to show.
Raymond is ready.
"It's not all up to me that we win," Felton said recently. "All thirteen, fourteen, however many guys we keep this year, it takes all of them. [But] I'm a big part of that, because I'm the floor leader. It's a big part of my game that I have to play in order for us to win the game."
At the end of last season, even with the resiliency demonstrated by his teammates, it often looked like Felton was the only thing standing between scratching out a victory or close defeat on the one hand and complete collapse on the other. This year, however, things promise to be different. And that excites Felton to no end.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to be a better team this year," he said. "We're experienced, and on top of that we've got a big key to our team back. We've got Sean [May] back, and everybody is healthy. It should be a heck of a year for us. I think it's going to be a blast for us."
Felton is not relying on the improved health of his teammates or on Carolina's new coaches to make the difference, however. He spent a rigorous offseason looking for ways to take his game to another level. He shot between 500 and 700 baskets a day, with a particular emphasis on improving his three-point range, his mid-range shot, and his pull-up jumper. He also focused on the nuances of game strategy that are harder for fans to detect, but the kinds of things that make crucial differences between rookie talent and veteran skill.
"I've been learning how to guard screens, how to use screens," Felton noted. Even though many have commented on Williams's expected wide-open, run-and-gun style with the 2003-04 Tar Heels, Felton said he has also focused on "doing things more in a set--not just one-on-one against somebody." Not content to dominate on the offensive end of the court, Felton has focused on becoming a complete player. In high school Felton could rely on sheer physical ability. Now he has a higher regard for the mental aspects of the game, recognizing for example, when "I have to be back on defense to stop a fast break or stop a wide-open lay-up instead of…going up for a rebound like I did in high school."
The message? If Felton was good as a freshman, there is every reason to think he could be scary good as a sophomore. And with fans and media alike already in full speculation mode about Felton's NBA draft prospects, it would be easy to imagine a shift in the young man's character--something to belie the fact that he's left his hometown of Latta, S.C., in the past and moved on to the big time. But there is nary a trace of ego in his response when asked about what he imagines his legacy at UNC will be.
"To be honest, I never really thought about it that much. It would be great to have my jersey up there as one of the great players that played at Carolina. It would be great, but I'm not fixing myself on that. It would be a big accomplishment--I would love that, to just walk into the gym when I'm fifty years old and see my jersey hanging up there. It'd be something to show my kids, you know? That's my jersey, and I played here and accomplished some things while I was here. But you know, at this time, I really--to be honest, I never really even gave it thirty seconds of a thought."
That's okay, Raymond. If you have the season you are capable of having, there will be plenty of people who think of it for you.
Mark Simpson-Vos, a feature writer for the Inside Carolina Magazine, authors the cover story on Raymond Felton in the November Basketball Preview issue. To learn more about the IC Magazine, click here