MILWAUKEE — Raymond Felton’s fall from grace was swift and, at times, embarrbading — an unflattering photo with a cupcake, a gun charge, a bad ankle injury. In a few short years, Felton went from being a sought-after free agent to a laughingstock on his way out of the league.
He hung on, however, first exercising his player option to stay with the Dallas Mavericks for a second season, then parlaying his performance there into a one-year deal with the Clippers last season. And now, after signing a one-year, $2.3M deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the summer, he’s not only still in the league, he’s thriving as the backup point guard behind Russell Westbrook.
“When our team needs movement and cutting, he [Felton] creates that. When he needs to settle ’em down, he settles ’em down. He’s done a really, really good job from day one coming in, just with his presence,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said at shootaround the morning before Felton finished with nine points and six rebounds in 19 minutes to help OKC get an emphatic 110-91 victory on the road over the Milwaukee Bucks. “Whether it’s dead balls or free throws, coming out of timeouts, on the court, he does a really good job. He’s got such a good feel for the game. He’s a smart player, he’s got a high IQ. He can get things organized out there.”
Through the Thunder’s first seven games, Felton is averaging 8.4 points and 2.7 badists, and having a career season shooting the ball — 52.5 percent from the field overall, and even higher from 3-point land, where he’s knocking down 55.5 percent of his attempts, which is 23 percentage points higher than his career average.
His 3-point shooting was something that he worked on diligently over the offseason, and it’s showing through the first few weeks of the season. “Yeah, that’s something that I wanted to work on,” Felton said before taking on the Bucks. “You try to bring something different every year to your game. So that’s one of the things I wanted to work on was my spot shooting, for sure.”
While Felton shooting a whopping 55 percent from behind the arc certainly wasn’t expected — and most certainly isn’t going to continue — the fact that he’s having the best shooting season of his career isn’t all that surprising. Not only did he put in the work before arriving in OKC, but his attempts are pretty much all wide open because of the attention that Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George draw.
Just take Felton’s two 3s from Tuesday’s game in Milwaukee.
On this first one, Anthony catches the ball on the wing, and you’ll notice John Henson completely leaves Jerami Grant to provide help. (Now, Henson gets stuck in no-man’s land, and really doesn’t do anything at all, but that’s beside the point.) Spotting a cutting Grant wide open near the elbow, Anthony fires him the ball. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was checking Patrick Patterson in the corner, then has to come over and make sure that Grant doesn’t get an easy bucket in the lane. This leaves Matthew Dellavedova scrambling out to the corner to cover for Antetokounmpo, which means no one is left to guard Felton.
Grant stays calm and finds a wide-open Felton, who buries the triple:
It doesn’t get any easier than this.
Then, on this second example. It starts with George dribbling toward the middle of the floor to utilize a screen from Grant. Henson once again helps to try and force the ball out of George’s hands, and in order to prevent a rolling Grant from getting an easy dump down and dunk, Dellavedova pinches in. When he does so, George skips the ball out to Felton in the corner. Delly scrambles to get back in the play, but Felton calmly pump fakes and sends him flying past, then takes one dribble and knocks down another outside shot:
Another very simple look for Felton, and one that is emblematic of the looks he’s been getting all season long.
With open looks like that most likely coming his way all season long, it’s going to be a fun year for Felton in OKC. But even more so than his impressive shooting performance, the biggest way Felton has helped the Thunder is by giving them a real solid backup point guard. In the past few seasons, OKC has had youngsters such as Cam Payne and Semaj Christon running the second unit behind Westbrook, an experiment that didn’t work. This season, Felton has come in and taken control, making sure everything runs smoothly when Westbrook sits down.
“He’s just a veteran guy. He’s really smart, bright, got a great feel for the point guard spot. I give him a lot of credit,” Donovan said after the win over the Bucks. “A lot of times with our second unit, there is a lot of younger guys in there. He’s a great mentor and leader for those guys. I trust him with that group because of the way he communicates and the job that he does with those guys. He’s really been valuable to our team, especially with the second unit and keeping things under control.”
Felton’s value and ability to keep things under control has showed. Not only does he essentially never turn the ball over (five turnovers in 124 minutes), the Thunder have a net rating of 12.1 when he’s on the floor, which is better than every single other rotation player besides Alex Abrines.
He won’t get the same credit as Westbrook or George or Anthony, and that’s fair. But make no mistake, Felton is an important member of this Thunder team. And even if he doesn’t have his name up in lights, Felton said there’s “no question” his resurgence with OKC brings him plenty of pride.
“The biggest thing with that, man, it just shows what type of heart that I have,” Felton said. “I went through some tough times, came back, had the injury, bounced back. That’s just me. I’m always a fighter. I’m never gonna give up.”