On the defensive: Former Lincoln star excels at shutting down opponents

Defense first — everything else second.

Rakym Felder isn’t interested in jam-packing his stat sheet or racking up points, but the former Lincoln star is determined to make sure his opponents don’t do either.

Felder, in the midst of his rookie season at South Carolina, is building a reputation as one of the top defenders on the Gamecocks’ roster, looking to shut down anyone who matches up against him.

“If you can’t play defense, you’re not going to get any playing time,” he said. “Playing defense is kind of my calling card now. That’s what gets my offense now, it gets the team going.”

Felder’s defensive prowess began at Lincoln, and his ability to keep opposing players out of the lane and away from the rim was a big reason South Carolina expressed interest in him. Felder has only gotten more focused in the last few months, and he has just one goal when he steps onto the court: defend.

“Nobody is going to beat me off the dribble,” he said. “My man’s not going to score. I’m just not going to be beat. Defense is a big part of basketball, and I want to make it a big part of my game.”

The chance to play college basketball at the Division-I level is a lifelong dream of Felder’s, and he’s not going to waste the opportunity. He grew up with a basketball in his hands — playing pickup with his brothers in Bedford-Stuyvesant — and he’s relished every single minute he’s spent in a Gamecocks uniform this season.

“South Carolina was always my dream school,” Felder said. “I always wanted to come here and play basketball — that was my first love.”

Felder’s on-court approach has always been built on his defense, but he’s doing his best to become a well-rounded player. After all, the college game is different from high school, and getting used to the atmosphere of the Southeast Conference has been one of the biggest challenges of Felder’s rookie season.

“It’s just been a learning experience, getting familiar with college basketball and my teammates and coaches,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn as much as I can and know the position I’m playing in right now. It’s just about trying to take everything in.”

Felder saw action in 13 of South Carolina’s first 14 games, and he’s already noticed improvements in his game. He’s gaining confidence with each defensive stop, settling into the pace of the game, and not letting the big-time crowds intimidate him.

“The atmosphere is so different and it’s been incredible,” Felder said. “I’m gaining knowledge of the game. I’m starting to learn how to play the game the right way and not just run up and down the court.”

Felder isn’t looking too far ahead — he’s always focused on the next play and the next defensive stop — but he’s the first to admit he’s got goals. He wants to help his team win, and he hopes, the opportunity to notch a few defensive on a national stage.

“We just want to make the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Tournament,” Felder said. “That’s the goal here — to win as many games as we can and get into the tournament. It’s really that simple.”

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