With the NBA Draft combine underway this week and recruitment wrapped up, the roster for the 2017-18 Tar Heels is virtually set. Kevin Knox decided to take his talents to Kentucky, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry both decided to return for their senior year, and Tony Bradley’s spot on the roster is the one lone question mark remaining.
One of the bigger holes left from this offseason is the absence of Justin Jackson, who decided to sign with an agent and stay in the NBA Draft. Now that we know that this huge hole at the three-spot will not be filled by Knox, how will UNC manage to fill the void? The good news is that there is already a strong candidate on the roster.
Before I continue, it should be pointed out that I firmly believe Theo Pinson will be able to slide into the small forward position and continue to fill up the stat sheets just like he did this past season. If he can manage to get some shots to go down as well, I would say that the starting small forward spot is in relatively good hands. He is one of the best defenders on the team, he has very good vision on the floor, and he has the ability to get to the boards. There are undoubtedly some things he must—and will—do better, but I do not think all is lost at the three-spot.
With that said, let’s focus on the offensive side of the ball. It’s a bit of a bizarre situation when UNC manages to get a big-time recruit extremely early on in the recruiting process of the 2017 class with relatively minimal fanfare. Jalek Felton has been flying pretty far under the radar in terms of anybody outside of North Carolina, and quite honestly, even as far as UNC fans themselves.
Kevin Knox drew a lot of attention from Tar Heels fans because a big-time player in Justin Jackson was leaving and Knox would have been the quintessential Band-Aid that would have made it sting less, especially at the small forward position. However, UNC did manage to pull in a 5-star recruit that will be crucial to their success in the fall.
Jalek Felton is the 26th best recruit in the 2017 recruiting class, according to the ESPN 100. He is the one player that could sneak up on everyone coming out of the freshman class, purely because he didn’t crack the top 25. Weirdly enough, Felton was also left out of the McDonald's All-American game despite being invited to the Jordan Brand Classic. All of this, of course, is merely cosmetic, if you really think about it, since a player’s true talent isn’t always accurately reflected by ranks or accolades (ask Harry Giles). The fact of the matter is that Felton is going to be good. The question is, how good will he be?
A lot of Felton’s success may just depend on how Roy Williams decides to use him in the lineup. Jalek made a name for himself as a point guard, but since then has been moved to the shooting guard spot and is officially listed as a combo-guard. With Joel Berry coming back for his senior year, he will undoubtedly get the start at the point position.
Looking at the shooting guard spot, however, it won’t be impossible for Jalek Felton to take the starting spot from Kenny Williams. The issue there as it stands is that Williams is a very good perimeter defender, and his shot also started to get better before he got injured. Felton’s best hope would be to prove that he can be a good defender and show that he can score as well as he managed to during high school.
A scenario where Felton comes off the bench at either point or the shooting guard spot honestly isn’t a bad situation to be in at all. With Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson being question marks at their positions, Felton will get more than enough playing time to do some damage.
He has strong playmaking abilities, strong vision, is dangerous in transition, and has the ability to finish shots through contact. He is able to knock down 3-pointers as well, but it will be interesting to see if he can shoot them with consistency. The biggest knock on Felton’s game that Roy Williams is sure to attempt to fix right away is defensive intensity. If Felton can find a way to dig deep and become a defensive presence, he will find himself staying on the court a lot longer as the season progresses.
Overall, UNC has had a potential gem in the 2017 class in their back pocket for the past couple years. Jalek Felton has a very good chance of being a big-time player next year, and I’m a firm believer that he will impress a lot of people. Hopefully this summer Felton will use “almost” making the All-American game and “almost” cracking the top 25 as motivation to become a big-time threat for the Tar Heels.