Ethan Telfair finally earned the chance he’d been waiting for last season at Idaho State. The skilled, explosive guard from Coney Island took full advantage, helping reestablish himself as one of the most heralded players in the country.
During last off-season following a breakout campaign, the Idaho State senior-to-be declared for the NBA Draft. After training in Los Angeles with his famous cousin former NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury and his former NBA lottery pick older brother Sebastian Telfair, Ethan attended a few group workouts and had an individual tryout with the Utah Jazz.
The returns were decent — the 6-foot point guard was ranked among the top 90 prospects available — but only 60 names get called each June. Telfair had not hired an agent, so he decided to return to ISU for his senior season, one many expected might even surpass his junior year.
“I had a great off-season,” Telfair said. “That’s why I thought I was going to have a fantastic senior season. I started my senior season off pretty hot my first three games but then I hit some bumps in the road and things got altered.”
If last season was a dream — Telfair earned Big Sky Newcomer of the Year and first-team All-Big Sky accolades by averaging 24 points per league game and leading the league in assists — this season has been an utter nightmare.
“This year has been a struggle,” he said. “It’s been a big struggle. I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t know you could learn so much through adversity and negative experience. It builds character, it truly does.
“I felt like I’ve succumbed to the Idaho State ways. Last year, I brought a different type of energy to this place. I guess I wasn’t enough this year. The whole vibe took over my whole everything.”
Last season, Telfair led Idaho State from the Big Sky basement to a 16-15 mark, ISU’s first winning season since 2005. The Bengals won 11 league games, earning the No. 4 seed in the Big Sky Tournament and a first-round bye. ISU sat in Reno, Nevada for four days, collecting accolades like Telfair’s honors and the Big Sky Coach of the Year for Idaho State head coach Bill Evans. Meanwhile, North Dakota got hot.
UND emerged from a hard-fought battle to beat Southern Utah on the tournament’s opening day. Already acclimated to the environment, North Dakota blitzed the Bengals in ISU’s first tournament game, putting together a 30-2 run in the first half to build a 28-point halftime advantage in what ended as an 83-49 North Dakota win.
The bad vibes have for ISU into this season. The Bengals were forced to play their first six games away from Pocatello. After an 0-6 start, Idaho State earned a win over Lamar only to go back on the road for four of its last five non-conference games, including lopsided losses at Wisconsin, Boise State and BYU.
The losing continued as Idaho State opened up Big Sky Conference play with road losses at Montana and Montana State and home losses to Eastern Washington and Idaho. ISU sat at 2-14 before winning at Northern Colorado for its first Big Sky victory.
“Playing a lot of games on the road was tough, especially when you are playing against really good teams and you are taking L after L after L,” Telfair said. “When you have a young team, it gets deflating. Some guys were mentally defeated. It was a pretty tough non-conference schedule. But I thought it was a pretty good schedule because I needed to play against good teams, good schools to showcase myself. But as a team — it’s not about me, it’s about the whole team — it wasn’t good.”
The struggles have continued as the Bengals limp into the Big Sky Tournament. Idaho State won just three Big Sky games and are 5-25 overall. The Bengals are the No. 10 seed in this week’s tournament, facing seventh-seeded Sac State on Tuesday evening. Telfair’s individual struggles have mirrored the team.
“Last year, we had a couple of guys (Telfair, All-Big Sky forward Geno Luzcando) that really, really played well,” Evans said. “This year, they haven’t played as well. I think they both came in with people understanding who they were. People have really defended them in the right way to make it difficult for them to score points. But it’s my job to figure out a way to give my best players a chance to score the ball. They aren’t missing shots on purpose and they aren’t throwing the ball away on purpose.”
The senior started out hot, posting a triple-double at New Mexico by scoring 25 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, dishing out 10 assist sand snaring six steals in an 81-70 loss. It’s been all downhill from there. After returning from an early-season suspension, Telfair scored two points at Wisconsin and shot 3-of-16 at BYU. He has scored more than 21 points five times in Big Sky play, with a high of 28 in a loss to Northern Colorado, but he did not reached 30, a mark he surpassed seven times in conference play alone last season, until his final home game when he scored 32 in a 95-76 loss to Montana.
“I’m just playing bad,” Telfair said. “It’s nothing anyone is doing. I’ve played against every defensive scheme you can think of. I’m just not playing well. When they throw a scheme at me and it works, they think they got me figured out. The way it looks, they do got it figured out but really, it’s just because I’m not playing well. That’s no one’s fault. That’s my fault.”
Telfair has struggled shooting the ball from every area. Last season, he shot 44 percent in conference play, including 41.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. This season, he is shooting 33.2 percent, including just 30.9 percent from deep. He’s shot 157 free throws, 80 less than he did a year ago. He is shooting 74.5 percent from the stripe, down from 89.9 percent from his junior year. His scoring average is down from 20.2 points per game overall to 16.1 and he is averaging the same number in conference play, nearly eight points per contest less than he did a season ago against Big Sky foes.
“I think people have done a really good job of defending him,” Evans said. “In screen and roll situations where he is at his best, in the open floor, they have done a good job of recognizing that and making him shoot tough shots. He shoots a lot of tough shots right now. It’s because he wants to help our team win, not just because he wants to shoot. He’s very competitive and wants to win.”
Montana State head coach Brian Fish has long been one of Telfair’s biggest fans. Telfair’s college recruiting was derailed when he incurred illegal gun charges as a teen in Brooklyn. Soon after the incident, he left Lincoln High (of the film ‘He Got Game’ fame) to attend Quest Prep in Las Vegas in 2012. He spent the next year at a prep school in Oklahoma with the same Vegas club coach before being reclassified into the high school class of 2014.
He spent 2014 at Northwest Florida State College, where Fish first saw him.
“I went to see him when I was an assistant at Oregon in Northwest Florida,” Fish said. “I knew he was going to be a good player when I saw him. He can do a little bit of everything to take a game over.”
After a year at Northwest Florida, Telfair transferred to Redlands Community College in Oklahoma to be closer to Sebastian, who played 16 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder in his final NBA season that winter. There, Telfair forged a relationship with former OKC star Kevin Durant, an All-NBA player who he still seeks advice from. Telfair said he plans on going to the Bay Area to spend some time with Durant, now with the Golden State Warriors, when Telfair’s senior season is finished.
Although Fish thinks highly of Telfair, the ISU star’s senior season hit rock bottom on Thursday night against Fish’s Bobcats. For the first time in his career, he did not score. He missed all four of his shots, including two 3-pointers in 29 minutes of ISU’s 78-69 home loss to Montana State. Still, Fish praises Telfair.
“I get calls from NBA scouts asking who I think they need to see in our league and I always bring up Telfair,” Fish said. “He’s done a lot of great things for that program, he had a great year last year. He’s done some things out there that quite honestly you don’t see in our league. I have tremendous respect for his competitiveness.”
Telfair will go to Oakland to see Durant as soon as his time in Pocatello ends. Then he will go back to Los Angeles to train with Marbury and Sebastian in hopes of conjuring up NBA or perhaps Chinese interest — Marbury is a star in the biggest country in the world.
Coming out of last year, Telfair had an endorsement deal with ADIDAS in the works so he will readdress that as well. Despite the disappointment of his second season in the Big Sky, Telfair will still chase his professional dreams.
“This year, as soon as this season is over, I’m out of here,” he said. “I’m going to start working out and getting ready for what’s next for me. I can’t even tell you what’s next for me because I dug myself such a hole. But I can get out of it.”
“I didn’t make it any easier for myself but they told me it wasn’t going to be easy for me even just coming here to Idaho. We have a chance to finish strong and it’s all about attitude and even though I’ve been playing like shit, and things haven’t gone my way, I’m still trying to keep a good attitude, positive to my teammates. But it’s hard. We are going to try to finish off strong and make the most of this opportunity Idaho State gave me while I have it. When it’s over, I don’t want to leave with any regrets.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and contributed by Idaho State Athletics. All Rights Reserved.