CHARLOTTE — On March 1, 2018, Jalek Felton withdrew from North Carolina, about a month after the University suspended him and began an investigation into allegations of misconduct.
Over a year later, little has changed. In a phone interview with The Daily Tar Heel two weeks ago, attorney Kerry Sutton confirmed that the investigation hasn’t ended, and she is still actively representing Felton, a former reserve guard on the men’s basketball team.
“We are still working hard to clear his name,” the Durham-based lawyer said, “and we’ll take every legal avenue we have to.”
Felton has kept a low profile since his suspension in January 2018, which made him ineligible for all “University activities,” including class and basketball. His last interview with a United States media outlet came in July 2018, when he spoke with ABC Columbia at a summer league event in his home state of South Carolina.
Since then, Felton has played professionally in Slovenia and Finland and communicated primarily through his Twitter account, team-issued statements and Sutton, his attorney.
But, with the 2019 NBA Draft approaching, Felton made a rare public appearance. On May 21, he worked out for the Charlotte Hornets with five other players and met with reporters afterward. Felton, 21, declined to discuss the specifics of his suspension and withdrawal. He did, however, reflect on his time at North Carolina with a sense of completion.
“Not really,” he said, when asked if there were any updates on his situation. “I was just young, made a couple bad decisions. That’s in the past. Looking forward and just moving forward from here.”
Asked Jalek Felton if he had any updates on his UNC suspension/withdrawal last spring: "Not really. I was just young, made a couple bad decision. That's in the past. Looking forward and just moving forward from here." @DTHSportspic.twitter.com/P1vYMsasTr
At the time of Felton’s suspension, the University declined to comment, citing federal privacy laws. In an email to the DTH last week, a University spokesperson said that was “still the case” and declined to comment.
Felton arrived in Chapel Hill with considerable hype.
He was the No. 1 player in South Carolina’s class of 2017 and the No. 30 player in the country. He was the nephew of Raymond Felton, the former UNC guard who helped the Tar Heels win the 2005 national championship. And he had committed early, too — in 2014, when he was a high school sophomore and North Carolina was embroiled in its academic-athletic scandal.
At UNC’s 2017 media day, head coach Roy Williams said Felton was “maybe the most gifted player on our team” but added that the guard’s work ethic and defense had to improve.
“If I can get him to be more focused and tougher, I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player and really help us,” Williams said. “He’s got some skills that a lot of other people don’t have.”
In North Carolina’s season opener against Northern Iowa, Felton filled in for an injured Joel Berry II and started his first career game as a Tar Heel. Berry, a senior, returned one a game later, and the Felton began to split reserve minutes with then-sophomore Seventh Woods. The results proved a mixed bag.
Through 22 games, Felton was averaging 9.7 minutes, 2.9 points and 1.6 assists per game. There were flashes: a career-high 15 against Western Carolina, 12 points on four threes against Ohio State, a dunk against Stanford.
There were struggles, too. In December 2017, Felton admitted that Williams’ coaching style made him “almost want to cry sometimes,” but he also saw its benefits.
“You have to look at all the guys he has pushed,” the first-year said. “All the point guards he’s had, and look how successful they’ve been.”
In nine ACC games, Felton had just eight total points and nine total assists. And on the morning of UNC’s tenth conference game — Jan. 30, 2018, on the road at Clemson — his suspension was announced in an 11 a.m. press release.
“University of North Carolina freshman guard Jalek Felton has been suspended from the University,” it read, “and therefore is not currently eligible to participate in any University activities.”
'Due process rights have been violated'
Within the hour of Felton’s suspension, Sutton announced she’d be representing him. In a Jan. 30 tweet, she called Felton “an extraordinary young man & an exemplary student athlete.”
“The support he's getting from (UNC) fans and friends today means the world to him,” Sutton wrote. “We’ll get him back in class & on the court where he belongs as soon as we can.”
Jalek Felton is an extraordinary young man & an exemplary student athlete at @UNC. The support he's getting from @UNC_Basketball fans and friends today means the world to him. We'll get him back in class & on the court where he belongs as soon as we can. pic.twitter.com/4jNsG6awLe
In an interview with the DTH, Sutton declined to discuss specifics of the investigation, as she has done throughout her time representing Felton.
Her law firm, Sutton & Lindsay, PLLC, lists a number of specializations on its website, including defenses for students and athletes facing allegations of sexual misconduct and Title IX violations.
Sutton recently represented Allen Artis, a former UNC football player who was charged with misdemeanor assault on a female and sexual battery in 2016 and had his case dismissed in 2017.
On the night of Jan. 30, after North Carolina lost to Clemson, Williams said he had “nothing to do” with the how the suspension was handled, which was a University matter.
Felton was neither charged with a crime nor arrested. He missed five weeks of classes and basketball while the University gathered information for the investigation.
And on March 1, Sutton announced in a tweet that Felton had withdrawn from the University. In later interviews, she said that UNC “turned its back” on Felton and “kicked him out without giving him his rights.” Sutton reaffirmed that opinion to the DTH.
“I believe his due process rights have been violated, and we will continue to work hard to remedy that part of the problem,” she said.
After just two games with Petrol Olimpija, Felton was on the move again.
The basketball website Sportando reported his departure in mid-December. By the end of January, Felton had signed with BC Nokia in Finland. He had 31 points, six assists and five rebounds in his debut. Over seven games, he averaged 16 points, 7.3 assists and 3.6 rebounds for BC Nokia in 28.6 minutes a game.
In Charlotte, Felton said European basketball was a “totally different world,” adding that his time overseas — most of it alone — was a learning experience.
“It taught me a lot,” he said. “You know what I’m saying, with almost losing basketball to here (working out for the draft) is unbelievable. It just made me grow up fast. It just made me grow up and realize how fast something can be taken away from me. And I appreciate the game a little more now — a lot more now — than I did before.”
Felton said he’s kept in touch with “mostly all” of his 2017-18 teammates. He specifically named Theo Pinson, now with the Brooklyn Nets; Brandon Robinson, a rising senior; and Woods, who is transferringfrom UNC. Felton has also leaned on his uncle, Raymond, now a guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder, for draft advice.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard isn’t projected to be drafted by any major media outlet. His immediate plan is to stay in the United States next season, competing in the NBA Summer League and then the developmental G League, if needed.
“I’m blessed to be going through this process right now, with all I’ve been through in the past year and a half,” Felton said. “It’s a tremendous blessing. I can’t thank God enough.”
As for his conduct investigation, though, there is no immediate timetable. In August of last year, Felton told ABC Columbia that the investigation could wrap up in January 2019. But the investigation is still ongoing, Sutton confirmed to the DTH.
“The University took longer than we expected to do their part of the investigation and getting it set up,” she said. A University spokesperson declined to comment.
Sutton declined to give a new estimate for when she thinks the investigation will end. She has been speaking with Felton a few times a week and said they will “probably be friends for a long, long time.”
“I only work with clients that I like, because it’s very stressful,” she said. “So he is a wonderful guy, and I will work hard to do everything I can for him — that’s for sure.”