What Trevor Keels brings to the New York Knicks: 'The potential is there'

What Trevor Keels brings to the New York Knicks: ‘The potential is there’

Before Duke’s top-rated freshman class arrived on campus last summer, Mike Krzyzewski and his staff had some general idea of ​​what to expect. Paolo Banchero would be, well, a grown-ass man. AJ Griffin, who hadn’t played competitively in almost two seasons, would be rusty.

“The one you didn’t know about,” says associate head coach Chris Carrawell, “was Trevor (Keels).”

But from the day Keels got to Durham, the staff quickly learned what a talent they had landed. It wasn’t like Keels was some undiscovered gem – he was a five-star recruit and the No. 23 overall prospect in the class, per the 247Sports Composite – but the 6-foot-4, 221-pound guard certainly guaranteed his will more than maybe was expected. Behind closed doors, the buzz started growing. And from there, it didn’t take long for the rest of the country to see in public what Duke’s coaches had privately been raving about. This brings us to the Kentucky game.

Even now, seven months later, that game – Duke’s season-opener against the Wildcats in the late-night Champions Classic spot – still comes up plenty when talking about Keels. Because when Banchero and junior captain Wendell Moore Jr. went down with cramps early in the second half, allowing UK to storm back from its halftime deficit, Keels was the man left to right the ship. “And he blew that game out of the water,” Carrawell says. He’s right; Keels’ 25 points that night not only led all scorers, but ended up as the second-highest scoring effort of his entire freshman season. More than just the raw points, though, were how he came about them; Keels showcased his full offensive arsenal under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, burying Duke’s lone 3-pointer but also bullying his way to the rim. “Paolo and Wendell and those guys were cramping,” Carrawell remembers, “and he just was a man.”

In hindsight, that game was something of a blessing and a curse for Keels. The blessing, obviously, was that it proved he could take over a game chock-full of future NBA talents. It’s the well scouts and decision-makers have gone back to throughout the pre-draft process in evaluating Keels’ potential. The curse, on the other hand, is that a performance like that creates expectations – ones that Keels realistically couldn’t keep up with, given the sheer number of star teammates he had.

What it means now, though? There is belief Keels can replicate that effort more consistently, because he’s already done it once – and that’s exactly what the New York Knicks are banking on, after they selected Keels 42nd overall in Thursday’s NBA Draft.

And at his best, Keels is the version of himself we all saw against Kentucky: a strong, stocky guard who can create for himself as a driver and shooter. Per Synergy, Keels’ two most efficient offensive actions were as pick-and-roll handler and in transition, where he averaged 0.953 and 1.167 points per possession (PPP), respectively. Which makes sense: Those are the ways he’s getting downhill and using the full force of his frame the best. What was interesting was how Keels’ shot – something he was hailed for coming out of high school – came and went. He ended up shooting just 31.2 percent from 3 on the year, and per Synergy, he averaged only 0.795 PPP in spot-up scenarios; that falls in the 32nd percentile nationally, earning an “average” designation. But at the same time, he had 15 games this season in which he made multiple 3s. How do you square those two things? That’s something NBA teams have been sifting through.

There’s also the matter of what Keels looks like as a facilitator and defender. Duke didn’t have any one true lead guard this season, but Keels took his turn as a playmaker, ultimately finishing with a better than 2: 1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Speaking of turnovers, per KenPom, Keels only coughed up the ball on 12.1 percent of his possessions, a nationally-relevant mark and one of the ACC’s best.

On the defensive end, there’s more upside… but with another set of questions. Keels excelled at defending without fouling last season – he committed defensive fouls at the lowest rate on the team, per KenPom, at just 1.7 per 40 minutes – and used his bigger frame to out-muscle weaker guards and wings. At the same time, there’s less room for error with Keels’ body type, and his athletic testing during the NBA Draft Combine in May didn’t do him any favors. There’s some concern that, when he’s on the heavier side, Keels might not have the quickness necessary to stay in front of quicker perimeter players. But, again, that’s a matter of varying opinion from front office to front office.

Clearly, the Knicks are willing to buy Keels’ potential, something that’s only enhanced by his age; he doesn’t turn 19 until August, and is one of the younger players in this year’s draft. “The potential is there,” Carrawell says. “In three, four years, you can have a player who – with his body type – he gets in great condition, improves in those areas, (and) you’ve got a really good player by the time he’s 22 years old.”

(Photo: Robert Deutsch / USA Today)

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