To say that the Cleveland Cavaliers are loaded with talent is an understatement. They have a collection of basketball talent that is only topped by the Golden State Warriors. No team outside of Oakland can boast a squad that rivals Cleveland's mixture of star power and depth.
Somewhere deep in Tyronn Lue's treasure chest of basketball playing chess pieces are two of the NBA's most fascinating players, that nobody outside of Summer League and preseason watching nerds like me have ever heard of.
Those two players are Kay Felder, a 5'9'' rookie point guard and Jordan McRae, a former 10-day contract hunter. Both have taken incredibly difficult, unique routes to the NBA and both have had to work their asses off to get to this point in their respective careers.
At just 5'9'', Felder was completely overlooked by high-major colleges. Despite his ridiculous feats of athleticism and wide ranging skillset, high-major schools avoided him, purely because of his height. Felder's situation wasn't a rare occurrence, great basketball players get passed up every year because of their stature, this isn't new. But unlike many who would've been in a similar situation to Felder in the past, he didn't give up. Rather than just admitting that the NBA is a long shot if he's not playing in a noteworthy conference, he didn't lie down. He accepted the Oakland Grizzlies' scholarship offer and even though he was only playing in the Horizon League, Felder made waves across the country.
Over the course of his three years playing for Oakland, Felder played with a chip on his shoulder. He knew that he deserved a scholarship offer from a big school and he was ready to show it, just watch his 37 point, 9 assist performance against #1 ranked Michigan State as evidence. He trained and worked harder than any other player in the country to make sure he game was refined enough to make up for his height. When he got out on the court, he played with an undeniable touch of ferocity. Every time he led the lowly Grizzlies out on to the court, he was ready to send a message. A message that everyone received.
Felder defied all expectations during his college days. It became pretty clear early on that all of those colleges who passed on Felder, were dead wrong. During his three years, Felder gave Oakland the spark and leadership they needed. He dominated offensively, he scored 24.4 points per game in his final season, while tacking on 9.3 assists in the same year, the highest such mark throughout the entire country. In fact the distribution side to his game was so good that he broke the Horizon League record for career assists despite forgoing his final year of eligibility. If he had stayed for his senior year, he was on track to break the all-time NCAA Division 1 record. Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, Felder more than held his ground, with a smart, pesky defensive side to his game that makes him incredibly difficult to get by.
And now, the guy that every high-major college didn't want is playing for the reigning NBA champions. Quite a journey, huh.
Then there's Jordan McRae, the second half of Cleveland's newfound backcourt duo, who has an equally impressive road to the NBA.
After four years of reasonably impressive basketball at Tennessee, in which he showed flashes of being a great player, McRae was drafted 58th by the San Antonio Spurs back in 2014, before his rights were dealt to the Philadelphia 76ers. In a lot of players' careers, this is where their journey to the NBA would've ended. For most, getting drafted is the completion of a lifelong ambition. But for McRae, all getting drafted meant was more uncertainty. After he was acquired by the Sixers, he played his first Summer League stint, before he was stashed overseas in Australia, because Philadelphia simply had no use for him.
McRae played for Melbourne United in the Australian National Basketball League, a league that I am very familiar with. One that I watch almost as frequently as the NBA, considering that I live in New Zealand (who have a team entered in the league). Back during the 2014-15 season, I remember being excited by the prospect of seeing an NBA draft pick up close and personal. But back then, McRae was one of my least favorite players to watch.
He was probably the most talented player in the entire league, but McRae's streaky, inefficient, inconsistent scoring got on my nerves. Back then, it seemed like he didn't put his heart or mind into every game. He never showed me that he was expelling much effort out on the court, but merely just trying to fill up his own stat line as much as possible. You could tell that the talent was there for McRae, but the desire, basketball IQ and maturity was yet to be seen on a regular basis.
After McRae finished off his year abroad in Australia, he attempted to jump back into the NBA world. He played a bit in the D-League, had a second summer League appearance and participated in the Sixers' 2015-16 preseason, right up until he got released. After being drafted, experiencing one of the happiest days in his life, having to play a year in Australia and coming back to try and secure a spot on the Sixers, McRae was waived by the team who drafted him, after he didn't play a single game for them.
This might have been the best thing to ever happen to McRae. It seemed to light a fire under him, that he used as motivation. From that point forwards, the passion and desire I believed was missing from McRae's game, was suddenly there. He was willing to work and train harder than anyone to make sure his next NBA shot was permanent. He showed his improvement off in the D-League, where he was able to break the single game scoring record, by dropping 61 points for the Delaware 87ers. That improvement was enough for the Phoenix Suns to give McRae a pair of 10-day contracts, during which he didn't quite show enough to garner a full-time deal. All this did was give McRae further motivation to take his game to the next level, something that landed him a multi-year contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers just seven months ago.
After lacking the smarts, effort and maturity to make the NBA's worst team, McRae found the motivation he needed and is now the proud owner of a championship ring. That right there is commitment.
Now, both Felder and McRae are together. Two players with pretty remarkable journeys to the NBA have landed on the same team and even if you haven't noticed it, they have formed quite a backcourt combination. I don't care if the only times they've played on the same team have been during the Summer League and preseason, these two guys can flat out play. Better yet, they can flat out play together.
During Summer League and preseason action, McRae and Felder have looked like a real life version of the 'Orange Juice' duo from NBA 2K17's MyCareer. They both have undeniable talent, but when they thrive is when they team up on the court together. Their games mesh together seamlessly.
Where McRae hasn't mastered the defensive side of the ball, Felder's pesky harassment of opposition ball-handlers makes up for it. Felder's piercing passing ability and vision, fit in well with McRae's high-volume of shot attempts. Both are streaky shooters, but together, they both provide just enough of a threat from deep so that the Cavs' spacing can stay in tact. Either can play on or off-ball with relative ease, with both possessing great ball-handling abilities and off-ball movement. As a pair, they just work.
The Felder-McRae duo is miles off being a LeBron-Wade, a Stockton-Malone or a Westbrook-Durant. I mean, both are unlikely to see much of the court at all this season. Hell, it's unlikely that they'll see much of the court in the next three seasons, being on such a talented roster. But if there were a benchwarming equivalent to those hall of fame combos, Jordan McRae and Kay Felder would be exactly that.
I'm usually the first to say that Summer League and preseason performances are evidence for nothing. But, the Felder-McRae duo has convinced me otherwise. They dominated Summer League, averaging a combined 40 points per game, while shooting around 40% from the field. And in preseason recently, they have been fantastic against real NBA opposition.
Felder has averaged 11 points over the course of three preseason appearances, while shooting 44% from the field. Scouts feared that he wouldn't be able to score effectively against larger defenders at the NBA level, but so far, he has looked unfazed. His athleticism allows him to do stuff like this:
His creativity means that he doesn't get blocked as much as you'd think:
And his livewire, lightning quick drives get him to the rim with ease:
Meanwhile, McRae has been stuffing the stat-sheet with anything he can find. His savvy, slithering drives to the rim draw him fouls on command, shown off by him averaging nearly 9 free throw attempts per game over the course of three preseason games. Just watch on this play, how he catches the ball in stride, examines the floor and then attacks the rim with all his might:
And remember how I said that back in Australia, he didn't have the basketball smarts to make it in the NBA? Well, check out how he reads Fournier's defense perfectly on this play and makes a quick cut to the basket for an easy slam:
From what I've seen so far, both Kay Felder and Jordan McRae have very long careers ahead of them. Hopefully, we'll not only see more of them on the court as individuals, but as a pairing.
It seems unfair that the NBA champions were able to find these two diamonds in the rough. They are both incredibly good basketball players and even though they'll spend more time waving towels from the bench than scoring like they have during the offseason, none of you should ever forget about this remarkable backcourt. A tandem that are only in the NBA due to their commitment and work ethic.
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