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Building an American Comeback: Kay Felder

The last season featured a handful of professional basketball players born in the USA play abroad after having being part of the NBA or the G League in the prior two seasons. We review their 2019-20 seasons in the Chinese CBA and/or Euroleague in this series of articles, to know what they did and the chances they have to making it back to America.

2019/2020 CBA League - Beijing Ducks v Xinjiang Yilite Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images

There is no room at the top-tier of American professional basketball—the NBA and the G League, by extension—for everyone to be part of it. Every year we have a plethora of undrafted free agents luckily signed to contracts from NBA/G League franchises to become part of their squads. Every year, too, we see a lot of kids and veterans finding no place in the best hoop leagues in the world, thus looking for chances abroad.

That is not the most common path to building a sustainable career in the NBA, for sure, but for athletes that have worked their whole lives around basketball, it surely is one way to try to reach the pinnacle of the sport in the country where the best hoopers happen to play in.

In this series, we will explore the 2019-20 season of some American players that played basketball either in the CBA (top Asian league, and a place for ex-NBA veterans and young undrafted players) or the EuroLeague (the best-combined league in Europe and the consensus second-best league in the world only behind the NBA). All of these players also played in the NBA or the G League during the 2017-18 or 2018-19 seasons, so they are not too separated from their playing days in American soil and could still be re-called by an NBA franchise soon if they keep their level of play up.

Kay Felder - Xinjiang Flying Tigers (China - CBA)

2019/2020 CBA League - Beijing Ducks v Xinjiang Yilite Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images

Born in 1995, Kahlil Felder Jr. is barely 25 years old. That’s not enough to make it to our American Comeback list, but it surely is a positive. A Detroit, MI, native, Felder most probably has been hooping since he could dribble a ball. Thing is, he’s a diminutive point guard (5 ft 9 in) no taller than me that has had to defeat all odds and has beaten the hell out of expectations from day one.

Being such a small player (he’s one of only 25 players to make it to the NBA at his height in all of the Association history), it was never clear that Felder would even go on to play Division-I basketball at the collegiate level, let alone become the pro he’s turned into. But let’s not rush things that much.

First things first: even if you had wanted to, you wouldn’t have been able to even stumble upon Felder’s name all the way back in 2013 when he was a high school senior. Many scouting services didn’t rank Felder coming out of Pershing HS (the school that nurtured the likes of great old-timers such as Kevin Willis, Ralph Simpson, and HOFer Spencer Haywood) even though he became a local Detroit MVP in his last year there. No wonder the offers from NCAA colleges were middling at best—Akron, Southern Illinois, St. Bonaventure, and Oakland.

Felder committed to the latter, remaining in-state and playing with a chip on his shoulder he was always determined to follow the steps of former Detroit-greats Jalen Rose and Chris Webber, both far more talented than recent products of the city (Jordan Crawford, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Malik Hairston). Obviously, his size had gone against him in the recruiting process, and would do so once more in the NCAA, while he had to play three seasons before considering declaring for the NBA draft.

Looking at Felder’s college numbers is quite a pleasure. He started 100 of his 101 games for Oakland, and his average line went from 9-6-4 as a freshman, to 18-7-5 in his second year, and finally a great 24-9-4 with two steals and under four TOs through his junior year. Being named the Horizon League Player of the Year at the end of the 2016 season only strengthened Felder’s beliefs and expectations for the next year: becoming a pro playing NBA ball.

After a monster Combine performance, the Cavs bit onto drafting Kay and selected the then-former Golden Grizzly with the 54th pick of the second round in the summer of 2016 after buying that pick from Atlanta. Not bad considering the Cavs had just won the chip just days before. Felder was joining the reigning champs.

Between October 2016 and April 2018, when he played his final game in the NBA—until he eventually comes back, obviously—Felder spent time in three franchises logging 58 games and 526 minutes of playing time for an average of 9.1 mpg. He spent his first season in Cleveland coming off the bench 42 times, spending time too in the G-League affiliate Canton Charge (11 games, all started with monster averages of 29.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game).

After that freshman year, Felder packed his bags with Cleveland trading him to Chicago, which would later re-package him once more in a trade to Detroit. The Pistons only used Felder for fewer than six combined minutes in his two games for his hometown franchise, shame on them. Felder’s numbers dropped a bit in the G-League during the 2018 season (both in Grand Rapids and Windy City), and he found himself without a team by the summer of that year.

Lucky Felder, Toronto gave him a chance by offering him a deal in August... only to waive him two months later. He was added to the G League Raps team and even though his game averages bounced back to 18.1 points and 6.4 assists per game while sharing the floor with Chris Boucher for the Raptors 905 he was waived for good in December.

Again, while Felder’s production at the G League was not even remotely bad, it was his actions off the court who sealed his feat with the Raptors organization and the G League—the actual owner of his playing rights—as a whole. On Dec. 3, 2018, Felder was charged by police in connection with a case of domestic violence, which had an immediate effect in the 905 choosing to release him and the G League placing him on indefinitely leave.

Almost four months later, Felder opted to move on and turn the page entirely. Come March 25, 2019, Felder signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers for the remainder of the 2019 season and the full 2020 one.

Once in China, Felder turned into a bonafide supernova of a basketball player. At 23 years of age, that is. 23 points per game, 5.7 dimes, and 5.2 boards to go with 1.8 steals. See it to believe it.

And that was just the start, as his second year in Asia would see him grow even more. He improved his line to an overall 19-8-6 in two fewer minutes on playing time per game, starting 21 of 22 played games for the Flying Tigers. Let’s dig a bit deeper there.

This past 2019-20 season, Felder was one of 37 players to log at least 32 minutes pergame in 22+ games in the CBA. Not bad for a start. If you know the way some leagues operate to rank players in MVP races, then you know about the PIR (Performance Index Rating). The Euroleague, for example, uses it. It takes a bunch of stats, put them in a formula, and spit a single number that represents the player’s value. Well, in 2019-20, the guard ranked inside the top-25 in the CBA in PIR per minute. Some of the names above yet close to Felder: Jeremy Lin, Lance Stephenson, Donatas Motiejunas, Joe Young, Ty Lawson, and MarShon Brooks. Just to name a few that most probably would ring a bell inside your brain.

Something I like to check in players from abroad are their shooting percentages and volume on three-pointers and free throws. Felder averaged 4.8 3-point attempts per game, to go with 5.1 fta. Those are not mind-blowing numbers, sure, but Felder hit 35.8% of his triples and 86.7% of his freebies, one of only six players in China to do so on that volume.

As a second-year player in the CBA, Felder was one of the premier point-guards of the league. Only three other players averaged a baseline of at least 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists last season while playing 32.9 minutes per game. That’s almost four fewer minutes than second-lowest mpg-averager Ty Lawson (36.5).

What I mean is, Felder exploited Chinese basketball as much as he wanted in his age-24 season. There is no doubting that, and that alone should be reason enough to consider him a potential comeback-candidate to the NBA spotlight. When he arrived in the league, Felder did in quite a unique situation in a team already built and fresh off a championship. The Cavs had Irving at the point, and Love and LeBron were both still there too. The chances were going to be limited, and once he got traded to Chicago and Detroit he could never find his place.

We can wonder what could have happened had Toronto—one of the best franchises in terms of player development—hold onto Felder for a bit longer, or had Felder not broken the law by his own forcing his way out of the G League while still part of the Raptors organization. Perhaps we’d be talking about the next Boucher or Fred VanVleet, but now we’ll never know.

Anyways, and with his last tenure in the American basketball circuit being cut short because of off-court reasons instead of pure performance, there is definitely a path back to the NBA in Felder’s future. He’s already proved his worth in one of the best international leagues, and being as young as he is it is not crazy at all to think about him playing under the bright American lights again.

Let’s hope he’s gotten things right, don’t make the same mistakes as those he committed in the past, and can find a way to make it back to the Association in time to still become a productive NBA player.