LAS VEGAS — Courtney Fells’ basketball journey is a lesson in geography.
After graduating from North Carolina State in 2009, the Shannon, Mississippi, native has played for teams in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the Philippines, Venezuela and the United States. He’s seen time in leagues of all sizes and prestige, from the Talk N’ Text Tropang Texters to the world champion San Antonio Spurs.
Fells’ latest stop on his journey brings him to the NBA summer league, where he’s fighting for a training camp invitation, either with the Pelicans or any other team he manages to impress during these 11 days.
Players of Fells’ ilk are in demand in today’s NBA. A 6-foot-5 shooting guard who can also play spot minutes at small forward, Fells is a prototypical defense-and-3-pointer wing player that teams crave due to the increasing value of spacing and shooting.
He can handle the ball well enough; he’s got great range on his jumper; and though he’s not a great athlete by NBA standards, he’s active on defense and has a knack for getting his hand on the ball, at least disrupting ballhandlers’ rhythm. Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers, Fells showed the set of skills he has developed.
Fells entered the game with 5:13 left to go in the first quarter. At the 5:04 mark, he knocked down a 3. He hit two more and got fouled while shooting another — he sank all three free throws — as part of his 16-point first-half barrage that was impetus behind the Pelicans’ big lead (they won 90-73).
“I want him shooting like that every single game,” said Patric Young. “It’s unbelievable how well he played today.”
Fells ended up with 25 points on just 13 shots. He credited his guards for finding him when he was hot.
“(The guys) did a good job of finding me, and I appreciate it and I was just thankful that I was able to knock down shots for us,” Fells said.
Josh Howard also said Fells got going Sunday because of a strong defensive start, getting his hands on a few balls and being active on that end of the floor.
It’s more than a little serendipitous that Fells finds himself on a a team with Howard, a player whom Fells refers to as his brother. The two were teammates this season in Austin, Texas, playing for the Austin Toros in the NBA Development League, where Fells posted averages of 18.0 points, 3.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc.
Because of their time together, Howard’s had the opportunity to see how Fells has grown as a player. And the thing he’s noticed the most has nothing to do with skill.
“(He’s) being a great leader,” Howard said. “That’s something I noticed about him from playing with the Toros: He’s speaking up a whole lot more. He’s getting guys motivated and motivating himself.”
Asked what the D-League helped Fells improve the most, he said consistency.
“Guys like Josh and Flip Murray taught me consistency starts in practice, because what you do in practice is going to carry over into games,” Fells said.
Throughout his long journey, Fells said he has learned that no matter where he is, he always needs to be ready.
“You never know who’s watching,” Fells said. “The way you carry yourself is the way you represent yourself.”
His basketball IQ has grown along the way.
“I understand all five positions now,” Fells said. “I understand where you have to be at all times, and I need to be consistent with that.”
That increased IQ, Fells said, comes from watching lots of basketball — critiquing the game, not just enjoying it.
It’s not an easy life, bouncing from country to country and team to team, hoping for a shot at the big time. For some, the journey is in fact too much, and they give up on their dream. But for Fells, giving up isn’t an option.
Of everything Fells has experienced and learned in the past five years, he says his greatest lesson was simply this: “Not quitting, no matter what.”