CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams has frequently described Jalek Felton as the “most gifted” player on the North Carolina basketball team this season.
That praise, however, isn’t necessarily a blessing for the freshman point guard.
Williams is notoriously hard on young players he thinks has the potential to be great and Felton has been no exception.
Not that he should be surprised.
Back in 2002, Felton’s uncle Raymond got much the same treatment when he arrived in Chapel Hill to begin a career thant ended three seasons later with a national championship victory.
That experience hasn’t made Williams’ tough love any easier for this Felton to accept.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating and makes me almost want to cry,” he said. “But you kind of just look at it like he’s trying to coach you and make you better. And that is what he’s doing.”
The fruits of that improvement are starting to show.
Sunday, Felton scored a career-high nine points in a win against Tulane. He was even better Wednesday, upping his personal best to 15 points on 5 of 8 shooting (including 4 of 4 on 3-pointers) while adding five assists and three rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench to lead a 104-61 beatdown of Western Carolina.
The Tar Heels (9-1) broke the game open early with a run of 20 unanswered points and were never challenged in posting their highest point total of the young season.
Along the way, they set a school record by shooting 72.7 percent on 3-pointers, going 16 of 22 with six different players making at least two from beyond the arc. All six of those players ended up scoring in double figures.
Of those performances, Felton’s was by far the most encouraging — especially since it came on a night in which UNC announced that its other backup point guard, Seventh Woods, will be out for an extended period with a stress fracture in his right foot.
While the extra playing time Felton has gotten as a result of Woods’ injury has played a role in his recent upswing, his hard-to-please coach was quick to point out that it’s not the only reason.
“Jalek has been getting the extra reps in practice all week,” Williams said. “He’s getting more comfortable, realizing that he doesn’t have to put on a show every time. Just make the simplest pass he can possibly make. I’ve said all along that he’s gifted.”
Felton wasn’t the only freshman to get more court time than usual on Wednesday.
The lopsided nature of the game allowed both shooting guard Andrew Platek and big man Brandon Huffman to post season highs with 17 and 13 minutes, respectively.
Platek, in particular, took advantage of his opportunity by going 3 of 5 from 3-point range while scoring 11 points and handing out three assists.
“It was a lot of fun to finally make some shots in the Smith Center and just kind of get my rhythm going,” Platek said. “Playing more helps, playing with the guys, figuring out their tendencies and what I can do to help the team. Tonight it was making shots.”
He wasn’t alone in that respect. Two-time ACC Player of the Week Luke Maye posted his third straight double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds in just 26 minutes of action. Kenny Williams followed his now familiar pattern by scoring all 13 of his points in the first half while Joel Berry added 12 points despite suffering through a 3 of 11 performance from the floor.
While the starters got the job done early against a WCU team that falls to 3-7 on the season, the emphasis on this night was on those coming off the bench, including sophomore Brandon Robinson, who was also in double figures with 10 points.
“I think the coaches do a great job of just reminding the younger guys that whenever you take the court, that’s your audition,” Berry said. “No matter what the score is and what’s going on, you want to play your hardest because we’re getting to the time now where Coach is going to start cutting the lineup because of ACC play. You can’t play everybody.”
If Felton continues to play the way he has the past two games, he’s almost certain to make that cut.
“With Jalek, this is his chance to take advantage of it and be that backup point guard who gives us some good minutes off the bench,” Berry said. “I think he’s doing a pretty good job and he’ll just get better and better each and every day.”
And perhaps even earn a little more praise from his coach.