Kahlil "Kay" Felder, the newest Bulls player, is tiny. Well, not quite the Tiny, namely Tiny Archibald, the only player ever to lead the NBA in scoring and assists in the same season. But Felder almost did that his last season in college for the first time in modern NBA history.
Did the Bulls find themselves a big little man in the image of Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson? They’d probably settle for Avery Johnson or Earl Boykins.
No one quite knows yet, but Felder, 22, always has surprised the doubters.
The Bulls Monday finalized their roster for the start of the 2017-18 season by waiving Jarell Eddie and Diamond Stone and claiming Felder, who was released by the Atlanta Hawks after being traded from Cleveland along with Richard Jefferson in a roster and salary transaction. The Bulls have the maximum 17 players, including two-way G-league players Ryan Arcidiacono and Antonio Blakeney.
With Kris Dunn out with a finger dislocation, Arcidiacono moved in at backup point guard. Felder, who split last season between the Cavaliers and their G-league team, led the nation in a assists his final season at Oakland U. in the Horizon League and finished third in scoring at more than 24 points per game.
Among his signature games was 37 points in a narrow loss against fellow current teammate Denzel Valentine and Michigan State when the Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the nation.
But Felder fell to the second round of the 2016 NBA draft due to his 5-9 height. That despite an incredible athletic ability in which he recorded the second highest recorded vertical jump of 44 inches at the NBA combine. Felder in college was known for tip dunks and chase down blocks, characteristics perhaps even more associated with legendary smaller NBA players like Calvin Murphy.
It’s certainly premature to consider Felder in a class with a Hall of Famer, or even a remarkable NBA-level scorer like Thomas or dunker like Robinson. But Felder certainly is an intriguing addition for a Bulls team limited in the backcourt with Dunn out for the opening game in Toronto Thursday.
Dunn is on schedule to return by next week.
Meanwhile, it appears with Dunn and Zach LaVine out, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg will open with a starting lineup of Jerian Grant, Justin Holiday, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez. Hoiberg said he’ll likely use a 10-player rotation. But perhaps Felder now add to that.
"He’s a tough little guy who will compete and is a fighter," said former Detroit Pistons executive Joe Dumars, who watched Felder dominating at Detroit’s famous Pershing High School. That school produced the likes of Spencer Haywood, Mel Daniels, Ralph Simpson, Steve Smith and Kevin Willis.
Felder wasn’t highly recruited because of his size, though he was fourth in the Michigan Mr. Basketball race. As a college sophomore despite being known for his scoring, he was second in the NCAA in assists and in his junior year when he led in assists, Valentine was seventh and Dunn was 14th. Felder was a finalist for the Bob Cousy, Lute Olson and Naismith collegiate national awards and declared for the NBA draft after his junior season.
Felder was measured at 5-8 ¼ at the NBA combine without shoes, though he still intends to wear shoes when he plays.
And NBA lore is loaded with those guys short in stature, but not in results.
"I play out there with two chips on my shoulder: One because people think I am not tall enough, and another because I need to always prove myself every game," Felder told The New York Times during his junior season. "I am just giving it everything I have every single game because it is hard work that has gotten me here. It shouldn’t be about your height because that’s the one thing I can’t do nothing about. It should all be about your hard work, talent and how bad you want to succeed. That I think I’ve got."
That Felder game against Michigan State, which included a 21-point first half, was played in the Palace of Auburn Hills. Michigan State coach Tim Izzo said afterward of Felder: "He looked like one of the best players I ever saw play here in that stretch. And I’ve watched a lot of pro games here."
Of course, all college coaches say nice things about players on teams they have defeated.
But we have seen this before in the NBA, the little man dismissed. Not every one is going to be Damon Stoudemire or Spud Webb or Michael Adams. But also don’t dismiss players who can average more than 20 points and lead the nation in assists playing in Division I. Sometimes they just need a chance, and Felder wasn’t getting much of one last season with basically a loaded Cavs team playing for a title.
Felder appeared in 42 games for Cleveland and averaged four points in 9.2 minutes per game. In 11 games with the Canton Charge of the G-League, he averaged 29.9 points and six assists. There’s maybe something there.
Felder at 5-9 is listed as the smallest player in the NBA along with Isaiah Thomas, who in 2011 was drafted 60th after three years in college. Felder was drafted 54th. Thomas, though, went to a going-nowhere Sacramento team. So he played 25 minutes per game as a rookie with 37 starts. His per 36-minute projection as a rookie was 16.3 points per game; Felder’s was 15.5. Felder is expected to practice with the Bulls Tuesday.
"I see guys like Isaiah showing the league is opening up to guys who are like me because we can play," Felder told The Times. "It’s all about if you can get it done, right?"