Ahman Fells knows what it means to be a role player. He was one when he came off the bench at Simeon Career Academy, and up until a few weeks ago, the 6-foot-5 senior forward was doing the same for UIC.
Coach Howard Moore‘s expectations for Fells at the start of the 2014-15 season were clear. The senior would occasionally provide a bit of scoring, but mostly he would be what Moore termed “an energy player.”
“We need to teach him to embrace that role,” Moore said in October. “Whenever we need a jolt, whenever we need that guy to give us that extra energy or inspiration that can really fuel a team’s comeback or to really put a team out of contention.”
Basically, Fells would do more of what he had done his first three seasons, except now that he was a senior he would do it in higher quantities and in more minutes.
That was not a problem for Fells because he enjoys that role. He learned how to play it while lining up alongside great scorers like Milwaukee Bucks player and former Duke standout Jabari Parker, Illinois starter Kendrick Nunn and Marquette forward Steve Taylor Jr. at Simeon.
“We had a ton of scorers. In high school, I just kind of played my role and shot when I could,” Fells says. “I did the little plays, tip-ins, box out and rebound. Getting extra shots for my teammates. I did that because I knew that was what I needed to do in order for Simeon to be successful.”
Fells began the season coming off the bench. He got his first career start in a Dec. 6 loss to Loyola. Moore permanently inserted him into the starting five Dec. 28 against Bradley.
“When Coach first put me in the starting lineup, I was basically going in for defense,” Fells says. “That was my role and still is my role on this team.”
The offensive production was not there immediately, but when Horizon League play began Jan. 2, suddenly Fells was a driving force for UIC.
Then Fells rattled off three straight games with at least 11 points to begin conference play. His previous scoring high against a Division I opponent had been 8 points.
At the end of January, Fells took another lurch forward with a 20-point performance against Milwaukee followed by a 28-point outing against Valparaiso where he shot 11-of-13 from the field and made six 3-pointers.
Keep in mind that Fells made four 3-pointers for his entire career before becoming a full-time starter just after Christmas.
“I always worked on 3-point shooting and shooting as a whole,” Fells says. “That just comes from confidence and teammates and the coaching staff believing in me to make them. I’ve just been knocking them down for us.”
He continued to knock them down Wednesday, posting 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting in a loss to Oakland. Put that all together, and Fells is averaging 22.3 points per game in his last three games and 14.2 points in Horizon League play.
Last season, Fells gave UIC quality minutes off the bench in 25 games with his hustling. But offensively, he averaged just 2.1 points per game with an 84.0 offensive rating, according to Kenpom.
During his senior season, Fells total scoring average is up to 7.2 points per contest, and his 120.4 offensive rating ranks No. 109 in the nation. In conference games, he ranks No. 4 in the Horizon League with an offensive efficiency of 123.4.
The scoring outburst even surprised Moore, who was looking at Fells more as that high-energy, glue guy when he made him a starter.
“I knew he could shoot, and I knew he’s athletic,” Moore says. “I was just looking for somebody who could come in and affect the game in any way. With Fells, we know he can get to the boards. He hustles. He plays defense. He scrambles. He’s always doing things. The fact that he’s knocking down open shots is a plus. He’s playing at a high level.”
Fells and Moore agree the spark in the forward’s offensive output comes from a sense of urgency. As a senior, Fells is playing his final few games of collegiate basketball.
“Being a senior I knew that my time was gonna come to help lead this team,” Fells says. “Obviously some other guys got to come along, but that’s what the whole second stretch of the conference season is for. My role on this team has progressed.”
“The thing with him is he realizes he’s been here for four years and it’s time to get something done,” Moore adds. “Now he’s in a position where he’s got his opportunity, and he’s making the most of it. It’s a senior with some urgency trying to play his best basketball before his college career is over. … The hourglass is winding down.”
With his four years of experience, Fells has seen the wackiness that is college basketball in March, like fifth-seeded Milwaukee winning three straight road games in the 2014 Horizon League Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament.
UIC sits in 8th place in the Horizon League at 1-8 and 5-19 overall. The Flames are currently battling an eight-game losing streak.
The final month of the season does not look bright, and that’s probably an understatement.
As Fells’ path shows though, sometimes seasons and careers can change course and head in a completely new direction.
That’s what Fells hopes to help his team do with seven regular season games remaining, even if that is unlikely.
“It’s all about progression,” Fells says. “We’re gonna keep fighting and try to turn this season around. I tell our guys every day, I tell them it’s not over. I’ve played in this league for four years. I’ve seen some crazy things happen. Don’t ever give up and don’t ever put your head down. Because there’s, to me, still a lot more games to be played. You never know what can happen.”
Fells finally emerged as a scorer nearly 70 games into his college career when no one, not even himself or his coach, expected it to happen.
While Fells says he enjoys being a larger part of the offense, the role he’s been playing since high school as someone who can defend, rebound and providence an energetic lift is still what defines him as a basketball player.
“What most teams don’t realize is I’m not what they call a ‘shooter,'” Fells says. “If I can step out and knock down a 3-pointer, that’s what I’m going to do. If I’m at the basket posting up and that’s what my team needs, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not limited to just being a shooter. That’s not what I’m about. In a way I feel like [my role] has changed, based off the scoring. On this team, if I have to score, I’m going to score for us to win. But my true position or role on this team is to get stops and play defense.”