ROCHESTER, Mich. — It still eats at Kahlil Felder that he wasn't on the court to finish a December game against then-No. 1 Michigan State. The Oakland (Michigan) junior was brilliant in a 99-93 overtime defeat, bombarding the Spartans with 37 points—including five in the final 18 seconds of regulation—and nine assists. However, he was called for his fifth foul, a questionable charge, in the final minute of the extra session, with his team trailing by two.
Felder's performance came three days after a 38-point, nine-assist effort in a victory at Washington and eight days before he went for 30 in a loss at Virginia, one of the nation's best teams—and, like MSU, one of the strongest defensively.
"When I saw those high-major teams," said Felder, "I knew I had to put on a show."
It was a stretch that illuminated a 5'9" point guard from a mid-major program and entrenched him as a story many would follow all season, as Felder continued to put up stats Oakland coach Greg Kampe called "video game numbers." Through Thursday, he was fifth in the nation with 24.4 points per game and led all players with a rarely seen rate of 9.4 assists.
More significantly, Felder has become a presence on the radar of NBA scouts and emerged as one of the more unconventional player of the year candidates in college basketball. And while it disappoints him that he won't become, this season, the first player ever to lead Division I in both scoring and assists, just know he isn't done trying.
Former NBA veteran Steve Smith first saw Felder dunk a basketball when the latter was 5'7" and beginning to make a name for himself at Detroit's Pershing High School, a longtime basketball power.
"I started seeing him jump like he can and windmilling dunks, throwing down two-handed dunks, tip-dunks—I was like, 'Whoa!'" Smith said. "What I've realized is that, physically, he would be one of the strongest point guards in the NBA. He kind of plays like Russell Westbrook, without all the antics."
The families of Smith and Felder go back more than 50 years, rooted in Detroit's Conant Gardens neighborhood. Oakland University refers to Smith and Felder as cousins; though the families aren't related by blood, their bonds of friendship and basketball are woven thick. Smith and Felder's fathers grew up two blocks apart, and both were point guards at Pershing High. Felder has had a cousin, friend, mentor—call it what you will—in Smith his whole life.
"Kay's numbers are real numbers," said Smith, "[but] they're just numbers. Watch him go up for a rebound. Watch him defend; he could last in the league just defensively by being able to guard like he can. He's definitely ready. I can't see that there are three or four point guards in the country who are better than him."
Count Smith's former coach Tom Izzo among the many who believe Felder has a long NBA career ahead of him.
"He looked like one of the best players I ever saw here—and I said ever," Izzo said after his team withstood Felder's onslaught earlier this season at the Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the NBA's Detroit Pistons. "I've watched a lot of pro games here."
A blown-away Lorenzo Romar made what has become a common comparison to another 5'9" left-hander, likening Felder to former Washington point guard and current NBA All-Star Isaiah Thomas.
"The last guy who was in this building who plays like that plays for the Boston Celtics now," the coach said a few weeks after his Huskies had lost to Felder and Oakland by 15.
Observers have taken note of Felder's explosive drives to the rim, his granite-like shoulders and running back's hips, his seemingly limitless vertical—calling to mind another 5'9" former Washington star, Nate Robinson. Like the former 14-year NBA veteran, though, Felder (a 36.1 percent three-point shooter this season) needs more consistency on his outside shot, say many observers.
"[He's] very close to being draftable right now," said Elan Vinokurov, whose pro scouting service, EV Hoops, has Felder pegged as a second-rounder at this time.
"It's difficult to dismiss his production, but it is hard to make it at those dimensions. If you're going to make it at that size, you have to have an Isaiah Thomas-esque chip on your shoulder. Not a lot of guys can make it via that path. Maybe Kay is the next guy to do it, though."
Watch Felder play once, and you'll find yourself wondering: Who's going to stop this fireplug from making it to the NBA?
The answer: He might.
Oakland coach Greg Kampe began recruiting Felder when he was 5'7"—then when he grew to 5'8" and when he officially grew to 5'9"—all the while hoping his developing stature wouldn't give more prominent schools a reason to swoop in. (Kampe doesn't think he is that tall, but he's not complaining.) He got a verbal commitment from Felder prior to the Pershing standout's senior season, and from there all Kampe could hope for was that the commitment would stick.
"If he'd waited until he played his senior year, those schools—Michigan, Michigan State—they would've offered him," Kampe said. "Even after he signed with us, a lot of people told him he should get out of it, that he could go higher, all that stuff. But he was loyal to us."
According to Felder, St. Bonaventure, Toledo, Eastern Michigan and Akron all made offers.
"I was worried until the day he walked onto this campus," Kampe said. "The way things are today, the way people are, there are coaches always trying to come in the back door and circumvent everything."
Kampe needn't have worried, for Felder already was planning to finish what he'd started.
"I made a lifetime commitment," Felder said. "I said I was going to stick with it. I've seen guys decommit, go to another school and it doesn't work out at that school. Doing that never entered my mind."
The decision has served him well. Felder is the big man on campus at Oakland and the best player in the Horizon League. Still, he knows the second-place Grizzlies won't get to the Big Dance unless they win their conference tournament, which likely will necessitate toppling a Valparaiso squad that has lost only five times this season. Whether they do that or not, another summer of waiting looms for Kampe, who knows the NBA is hovering. By the end of February, Felder was drawing scouts to games from as many as nine teams.
"Once the season is over, we'll do our due diligence," Kampe said. "But if he's a first-round pick, then he probably should go."
Asked about that after a recent Grizzlies practice, though, Felder vigorously shook his head from side to side.
"I am coming back for school. No one is changing my mind about whether I should go or stay," he said. "I'm going to stay and get my degree first. I'm definitely coming back to school and playing my senior year at Oakland. First and foremost, it's about my education. I'm coming back no matter what."
Graduating is also something his mother wants, and given that his rise to prominence has been a relatively slow one, Felder has had time to consider what life might be like without basketball. The game doesn't work out for all, and it certainly doesn't last forever.
What's Plan B?
For now, it's working toward completing school. A communications major, Felder has come alive in the classroom, finding a voice that has surprised even himself—engaging in classroom discussions, asking questions, imagining what he'll be doing when basketball is over.
"I'm not just a basketball player," he said.
But he is one that's driven by nights like those against Michigan State, when he didn't make it to the end of the game, when a whistle interrupted his final drive to the rim.
There are plenty of reasons Felder wants to finish what he started. To be better than ever. To take a run at statistical history. To show that 5'9" can be gigantic.
Steve Greenberg has covered college sports for nearly 20 years, namely for the Sporting News and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow him on Twitter @SLGreenberg.