NEW YORK — New York Knicks starting point guard Raymond Felton only took one vacation this summer, soon after his team lost to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. He spent a few days at The Cove Atlantis on Paradise Island, a popular destination for many pro athletes.
In his mind, Felton couldn't escape the defeat to the Pacers, and it pushed him to get to work earlier—and harder than ever—this offseason. Also, the thought of continuing his career on the biggest stage, in New York, motivated him, and by summer's end he had lost 10 pounds.
He said it's the best he's felt in a long time.
"I'm great, man. I feel young again," he told Bleacher Report on Monday night at an Under Armour event at Macy's Herald Square in New York City. "It's all about, I think, when you're happy somewhere, you want to be better, you want to train yourself to be the best you can be. So me being here in New York, loving it, being happy here, it's made me work that much harder this year.
"Then, with the bitter taste left in my mouth after we lost to Indiana, all that just added on to my fuel, man. So it was a great summer for me."
After Felton returned from vacation, he was right back in his home state of South Carolina, starting a rigorous training regimen. It consisted of a three-times-a-day workout incorporating instruction from fitness trainer Denny Starr, basketball skills coach Gilbert Abraham and shooting and conditioning specialist Keith "Shot Doc" Veney, who has also worked recently with point guards Ben Gordon, Brandon Jennings, Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker.
In addition, Felton traveled to his alma mater, North Carolina, where he won a national championship in 2005, to run pickup games with many Tar Heel alumni. He also played in a couple of pro-am basketball leagues in the area. Wherever Felton was competing, whenever he was on his grind, he was reminded of the hardcore New York basketball fans.
"You've got to be tough mentally and physically (in New York). This state here, these fans love basketball," he said. "They know basketball, and they know if you're out there—excuse my words—bulls---ting, or if you're really playing. They know the difference, so you've got to bring it here...a lot of people can't handle that pressure; I love it here. This is probably my best place that I've played since I've been in the league."
Training with Veney, who has also consulted with All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and more than 20 other NBA players, has been a key development in Felton's game. They started working together late last summer before Felton's return to New York, and the point guard went on to improve his three-point shooting to 36-percent accuracy—the second-highest mark of his eight-year career—up from his 30.5-percent mark in Portland in 2011-12. This summer, they teamed up sooner in June, with Veney placing emphasis on the link between shooting efficiency and proper conditioning.
"My whole thing is, you can't be a volume shooter; you've got to be efficient," said Veney, who still holds the NCAA record for most threes made in a game (15) from his time at Marshall. "If he's going to take 10 shots a game, he's got to be able to make five or six of them every night. So with everything we did, he was only allowed two misses in a drill, and if he missed more than two, he would have to run more than that. Everything was running, so his concentration level was high.
"He's got his mojo back, and he's back to dunking. He's like a well-oiled machine, man. We wanted him to get back to where he was a top point guard coming out (in the 2005 draft)."
Looking ahead, while Knicks coach Mike Woodson hasn't announced his first unit yet, Felton expects to play some off-guard again like last season, when he started alongside Pablo Prigioni in March and April. That's when the Knicks went on a 13-game winning streak.
In that player formation, Woodson would call for some screen plays for Felton at the start of the games, and he'd usually knock one or two shots down. The dual-point-guard backcourt threw off defenses at times, as Felton could run a quick pick-and-roll out of a screen set, creating more spacing, lob and kick-out opportunities.
"I loved it," Felton said. "That gives me a chance to score a little bit more. (Opposing teams) didn't know how to cover it."
Veney added: "No question. My whole thing with Ray, Ray can score now. When he got 27 points against Miami (last season) or whoever, man he can score. So definitely now, getting his mojo back and weight down and being more efficient, I can definitely see a lot more 20-point games."
Felton also envisions pushing the pace more next season, now that the team has fresher legs. In 2012-13, the Knicks ranked dead last in the NBA in fast-break points per game (8.8). But he also recognizes the need to find offensive balance in order to prepare for grind-it-out playoff matchups.
"We have the guys to (run). We have the youth to do it now," he said. "But the game is really won in the fourth quarter in half-court sets, so you've got to be able to do both, and I feel like we have that type of team. We can go to a half-court game and slow it down and win a game, and we have the tempo and the athleticism and just the speed to just push it and go."
Tough Finish, Great Expectations
Reflecting on last season, Felton said the Knicks' grey hairs showed in the Pacers series.
"Last year kind of hurt us a little bit because we were the oldest team in the league, and that kind of hurt us later in the season," he said. "A couple guys got hurt that we really needed versus Indiana. We got past Boston, but we needed them versus those bigger guys in Indiana. They had four or five big buys, and our two, three bigs we had took a lot of banging.
"It hurt us big-time in that series, man. But we beefed up a little bit (this offseason) and got some guys. I feel like we got better. There's a lot of talk about a lot of other teams, but nobody's really talking about us, but I like that. Keep us under the radar."
Felton believes the sky's the limit for the Blue and Orange—"I feel like we have a good enough team to go all the way," he said—but he's also realistic. He senses this season's road through the East will be the most challenging he's ever faced.
"You've got to bring it," he said. "The East is like the West used to be the last six years. The West is tough, like the first five teams in the West you never know. You could lose a game in the West in the last couple years and you could drop all the way to fifth, and you could win two and be all the way up to the No. 2 spot.
"That's just how tough it was in the West, and that's how it's going to be in the East this year. Like when you go to Washington this year, you've got to play. Teams have gotten tougher. Like when you go to Cleveland, you've got to play. You can't go down there and just BS around and think you're going to win the game."
Being the starting point guard of the historic Knicks, playing in the media capital of the world, at Madison Square Garden, comes with a different degree of expectations. Not many are built for that type of role. But the tough-minded Felton has embraced it, knowing what's at stake, and his preparation this summer reflects that. He's even ready for the return of Derrick Rose, who could very well stand in the Knicks' way.
"It will be fun, man," he said. "I had fun when I played against him last time in New York. It's good to have those types of guys back. I love a challenge, man, so it's going to be fun every night. I look forward to it, especially at the point-guard spot. I get no nights off."