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Examining LeBron James' fascination with collegiate point guards

Norris Cole, Shabazz Napier, Kay Felder; examining LeBron's affinity for college point guards

Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports

When people speak (often with their tongues in their cheeks) of "GM LeBron," they're referring to dealing Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, or the familiar cast of characters that seem to come as part of a package deal, the Mike Millers and James Joneses of the world. But over the past few years, LeBron has made a habit of advertising, with varying degrees of emphasis and publicity, his affection for college point guards, namely Norris Cole (2011), Shabazz Napier (2014), and now Kay Felder (2016). What does it mean? What does it reveal, if anything, about what he values in a teammate, specifically point guards?

Cole was the first of the trio to catch LeBron's eye. The 6'2, 175 pound native of Dayton, Ohio starred at Cleveland State University, and as a sophomore, was a key contributor to the Vikings' upset of Wake Forest in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament (outplaying a young Jeff Teague in the process). An apocryphal story holds that during the summer prior to his his senior season, Cole found himself in a gym working out with LeBron, and after they played, LeBron recommended that Miami's scouting staff keep an eye on him. Norris went on to average 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and over 2 steals per game in 2010-11, and was named Horizon League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, vaulting him into late first round consideration in the NBA Draft.

The Heat, apparently heeding LeBron's words, acquired the rights to Cole (by way of the Bulls and Timberwolves) on draft night. While he's been about a replacement-level player overall, he was a key reserve on three Finals teams and shot the ball extremely well during the 2013 and 2014 playoffs. When you consider the careers many late first-rounders have (i.e., there are more Lazar Haywards than Jimmy Butlers out there), this was a pretty damn solid recommendation. Not stellar, but solid.

Three years later, with the Heat in the middle of their quest for a three-peat, LeBron very publicly stamped his approval on another point guard, UCONN's Shabazz Napier. The Roxbury, Massachusetts native had been a key contributor to a national championship as a freshman (2011) and the leader for another national championship team as a senior (2014). Apparently, LeBron was keeping a close eye on the 2014 tournament (this was pre-"Zero Dark 23" era) because he went out of his way to tweet Napier's praises in both the Elite Eight and the Final Four.

Even though LeBron had already announced his intent explore free agency by the time draft night rolled around, lo and behold, the Heat went out and got his man, trading up to acquire the rights to Shabazz Napier with the 24th pick. It was hard to look at the deal as anything other than an olive branch, or at least an overture to LeBron. Napier, an undersized pick-and-roll point guard without much to speak of in the way of explosive physical gifts, has struggled in the two seasons since he was picked. He averaged 5 points and 2.5 assists per game as a rookie with Miami, was given away to Orlando last summer, and spent the 2015-16 season weaving in and out of the rotation while barely hitting a third of his shots. Shabazz, somewhat unfairly, became something of sad reminder that his loudest advocate had left town. LeBron headed back to Cleveland, and Napier, unless he can turn things around quickly, has turned out to be a dud.

Immediately following The Return, I speculated that part of what drew LeBron back to Cleveland was the fact that they had a young, dynamic ballhandler on the team could help him age a bit more gracefully. This would be especially true, I thought, if LeBron embraced spot-up shooting, post play, and off-ball cutting as a way of lessening the load on himself through the rigors of 82-game seasons and 20-game playoff runs. His history with Cole and affinity for Napier suggested a theme of interest in the point guard position, and the Cavs had a pretty damn good one in place in Kyrie Irving.

The changes I figured LeBron would make to his game haven't exactly materialized, as LeBron hasn't really shown any signs of aging, but his interest in the point guard position persists. He's gone out of his way to refer to Kyrie as "the leader" of the offense, and the team's "floor general." This is fascinating, because he's a wing who plays like a point guard, with a high usage that would render many theoretical point guard teammates an awkward fit (think of him playing with Ricky Rubio or Rajon Rondo). Yet, LeBron clearly values and appreciates certain things that point guards (specifically) bring to a team. Perhaps it's command of the offense? Decision-making? A certain appreciation for the pace and flow of the game? After all, he hasn't been endorsing wing, power forward, or center prospects. It's been point guards - other players who would, in theory, take the ball out of his hands.

Which brings us to Kay Felder, the the Cavs' lone selection in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Cleveland paid $2.4 million to purchase the rights to the 54th pick from the Atlanta Hawks - a hefty sum for such a late selection - and took Felder, a 5'9, 180 pound point guard from Oakland University in Rochester, MI. Brandon Weems, a friend of LeBron's and a current Cavs scout, previously worked with Felder at Oakland from 2013 to 2015; according to Felder's agent, LeBron himself advocated for the pick. If that's the case, I'm sure everyone involved is glad this endorsement is flying a bit more under the radar than James' one prior (Napier), if only to keep some of the pressure off of the rookie as he attempts to make the roster as a second-round pick.

Felder's height (or lack thereof) undoubtedly contributed to his low draft spot, but he's very well-built with a strong frame, and doesn't shy away from contact (he got to the line more than 8 times per game last season). He's already got an impressive array of NBA-ready moves, is a solid outside and midrange shooter, has a nice floater, and displayed the ability to create his own shot (he averaged over 24 points per game in 2015-16) while capably running an offense and setting up his teammates (he also dished out better than 9 assists per game). Take a look for yourself, if you haven't already; he is a very intriguing prospect, size be damned.

While the Horizon League isn't exactly a breeding ground for NBA talent, Felder stepped up and played extremely well against the best competition he faced. In 11 games against "Power Conference" schools over the past two years, Felder averaged 24 points and 7 assists while shooting 89% from the line (on more than 8 tries per game) and 36% from three. That includes memorable performances this season against then-number one Michigan State (37 points on 22 shots, 9 assists) and future Elite Eight team Virginia (30 points on 22 shots). He had at least 20 points or 10 assists in all but one of his 35 games this season.

Will Felder work out at the NBA level? I have no idea, but he certainly adds a new wrinkle to the group of college point guards who've somehow earned LeBron James' attention and favor. Cole was an Ohio kid who was a tenacious defender and played a key role on defensive-minded title teams. Napier had a decorated college career who came up big on huge stages, but has struggled to translate his game to the pro level. What might LeBron see in Kay Felder?

Best case scenario, Felder fits beautifully with the Cavs. It's both pragmatic and intriguing - Delly is likely gone, and Mo's not getting any younger. As LeBron moves forward, having a playmaking ballhandler on the court for 48 minutes would be ideal, especially in the interest of preserving Bron as he ages (if he ever actually ages). It's not hard to envision Felder doing very good things with decent floor spacing. He has the pedigree of a scorer and a distributor. The obvious comparison is Isaiah Thomas, which seems too convenient, but that seems to be the kind of energetic, dynamic player Felder could become. Without gushing too much, or drinking all of the Kool-aid, I'd argue that Felder will easily be the best of the trio.

And if LeBron and I are way off, and Felder doesn't work out, I guess he will just have to rely on Kyrie Irving, which isn't a bad consolation prize. He's pretty good at basketball.