Trevor Keels could return to Duke: Is he the next prospect to hold off on the NBA?

Trevor Keels is a name to watch as the deadline to declare for the 2022 NBA Draft rapidly approaches: Sunday, April 24 at 11:59 p.m.

The current system is far from perfect, but in terms of pathways from preps to the pros, NBA prospects have never had more options. Within the last two years, there’s been the development of Overtime Elite and the G-League Ignite, for instance. It’s early, but both programs appear to be off to great starts: positive development environment and plenty of scouting opportunities.

With college athletes now allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness, NCAA/NBA prospects have increased options, too. Big-time college talents that project as more marginal NBA prospects — or those with a lot of variance in terms of draft outlooks — can remain in school and make money while doing so. (What a novel concept!)

There’s a big difference between the NBA rookie scale minimum and zero dollars, just as there’s a difference between NIL cash and a non-guaranteed Second Round contract. This is likely one of the reasons Armando Bacot returned for his senior season at North Carolina: play another year as the Face of the ACC, win games, set records, enjoy college and make money.

Oscar Tshiebwe, arguably the closest facsimile to Bacot in college hoops, will return for his senior season at Kentucky. Tshiebwe was named the National Player of the Year for the 2021-22 season. He’ll become the first reigning National Player of the Year for men’s basketball to return since UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough for the 2008-09 season.

This cycles things back to Keels, an intriguing two-way talent.

Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams have already declared for the 2022 NBA Draft, unsurprisingly. Banchero projects as a Top 2-3 pick in the draft. Williams is a mid-to-late First Round prospect, who could move up to the backend of the lottery. (A franchise like the Charlotte Hornets, in need of a young, defensively-minded center in the pipeline, could make an early play for Williams).

AJ Griffin has yet to announce his decision; however, the sweet-shooting wing projects as a Top 5-8 pick in the draft as well.

Of Duke’s top six players, this leaves Jeremy Roach, Wendell Moore Jr. and Keels.

First, as well as Roach played to close the season, he’s likely not a real NBA prospect at the moment, although his 5-star pedigree and Duke’s brand could push him into those conversations. Right now, though, he’s a 6-foot-1 point guard who posted an effective shooting rate under 48 percent this as sophomore.

Secondly, Moore put together as brilliant junior season for the Blue Devils. Moore, with excellent two-way player, captained Duke to its first Final Four since 2015. Moore, 20, is young for a junior; he would stand to make a lot of money via NIL if he returned, too. However, he seems ready to cash in. Moore projects as a late First Round selection.

Finally, there’s Keels. At times this season, Keels seemed like an obvious choice to head to the NBA. His stock soared after his wonderful 25-point performance in the season-opening win vs. Kentucky. Keels certainly had a lot of great moments this season, too.

There’s obvious appeal for Keels as an NBA prospect. He provides on-ball creation, daring (yet inconsistent) shot-making and (at times) powerful point-of-attack defense.

Keels, however, never quite regained the vibes that followed his initial, early-season jolt. His play was up-and-down. In terms of processing, the decision-making fluctuated, wildly.

To be clear, Keels is still an excellent player. He helped the Blue Devils win a lot of games this season, and there’s gobs of potential for him on the next level. (For whatever it’s worth, I’d still grade Keels as a late First Round prospect. He hovers in the 25-35 range for me.)

The jump shot remains a mystery, which is a bit of a concern for a 6-foot-3 combo guard. Keels shot 31.2 percent from deep this season, on good volume (9.3 3PA per 100 possessions). According to Synergy Sports, Keels scored under 0.80 points per spot-up possession (42.7 eFG%) this season.

Keels offers some shot versatility with his off-dribble creation and range. Here he is vs. Miami: Keels loads up a quick, fluid 3-ball off a handoff from Roach.

However, Keels shot just 67.0 percent from the line (65-of-97 FTA). These are smaller samples, obviously. It’s just one season of college basketball. Keels also dealt with a team-wide COVID pause in the middle of the season and serious injury, too. There are still reasons to feel mostly positive about the jumper; however, it’s currently not a strength. 

Keels (221 pounds) does a nice job applying his strength. It’s one of the things that makes him so tough on the ball defensively — along with his quick hands. On this possession, Keels (2.3 percent steal rate) bottles up Ohio State’s EJ Liddell, one of the top forwards in the country and another possible First Round draft choice.

There are still moments when Keels struggles in terms of 1-on-1 defense and screen navigation in the pick-and-roll. Keels bagged a lot of steals this season by intercepting passes; however, his off-ball defense needs work, too. He’s prone to ball-watching or overplaying, which can expose him in various actions or off-ball cuts.

This is an after-timeout play vs. Michigan State: the Spartan run spread pick-and-roll from the out-of-bounds play. Moore and Williams bottle up the screen-roll action, but Max Christie plants and zips backdoor behind Keels for a dunk.

He’s not there yet as an A1 defender, but the tools are impressive. This is a hounding effort from Keels as he chases Tyty Washington through Kentucky’s Floppy action, denies a handoff and forces a turnover.

This becomes the question: will an NBA team bet on its ability to develop Keels in 2022 or is this something to be improved upon within the confines of Duke’s facilities?

That power and low center or gravity are also how Keels is able to get north-south with the basketball. Keels can simply overpower college defenders — even longer, more experienced wings like Virginia’s Armaan Franklin.

Keels needs that strength and craft to finish around the hoop, though. As of right now, he’s not the most explosive downhill driver. Keels can put pressure on the rim, but he shot 52.3 percent around the basket in the half court this season, per Synergy. That’s OK-not-great.

Moreover, Bart Torvik’s shot data charts Keels with only two dunks this season — one vs. Kentucky, the other vs. Elon. (Adrian Atkinson’s data has Keels with two dunks, too.)

However, I chart and clip every Duke game and could only find Keels’ one dunk vs. Elon, which came in the open floor following a steal. I rewatched portions of the Kentucky game and couldn’t find a dunk for Keels in that contest.

Whether Keels had one or two dunks this season is besides the point, though. The difference is basically meaningless. What is meaningful, however, is that Keels had only 1-2 dunk(s) this season, none of which came in the half court, vs. a set defense.

According to Bart Torvik’s shot data, Keels was one of only 29 high-major players this season with 20+ percent usage, 100+ close 2-point attempts and two or fewer dunks. Keels is hands down the prospect in that group, which features plenty of good players, most of whom are smaller guards: RJ Davis, Wendell Green Jr., Sahvir Wheeler, Kendric Davis and Jalen Cook, among others.

With that said, there were certainly some special flashes. This hanging finish — with a displacement of Tshiebwe — should count for bonus points.

Those downhill drives open up other areas of Keels’ game. Once a defender is worried about a downhill drive, Keels can get to his step-back game. This is a nice bit of space creation vs. the 6-foot-6 Naz Bohannon.

Despite some of his errors as a half-court initiator, Keels showed that even in a crowd he can make some reads off his live-dribble penetration. There were both moments of manipulation and patience.

Keels doesn’t have to split the atom here, but going up against NC State’s Ice coverage: he draws two defenders while Williams rolls into the paint. Keels has the ability to skip the ball to Banchero on the weak-side wing, which puts Jericole Hellems, the defensive low man, in a tough spot. Keels notes this and hits Williams, who has inside leverage on Hellems.

After a shaky 2022 ACC Tournament, Keels moved to the bench; Roach was promoted back to the starting lineup. There were highs and lows for Keels in this new role: fewer minutes, less time on the ball. At his best, Keels found a groove with his defense and off-ball movement.

Keels made big shots in the win over Michigan State, playing off Banchero’s gravity and playmaking brilliance. Keels also scored 19 points (6-of-7 2PA) in the Final Four vs. UNC.

His offensive inconsistencies pushed him to the fringe of Duke’s shrinking rotation, though. As Mike Krzyzewski tightened things vs. Texas Tech, Keels played a season-low 14 minutes and scored zero points. It was the first time all season that Keels went scoreless.

Honestly, the fact that Keels rebounded after the Texas Tech game to play well vs. Arkansas and, especially, UNC speaks to his mental toughness. A lot of players — with one foot out the door for the NBA — could or would let go of the rope in this circumstance. Keels, however, dug in and played good ball for the Blue Devils in high-leverage minutes. That matters. (Part of me thinks this factors into the optimism around Durham that Keels may return.)

If Keels were to return, Duke could offer him an impressive package. Once again, he’d (likely) get to team up with Roach, his former high school teammate. Together, Roach and Keels would form one of the best backcourts in the country.

With Roach, Keels and incoming freshman wing Dariq Whitehead, the Blue Devils would have an impressive collection of on-ball creators. This would pair rather nicely with the frontcourt of Dereck Lively, Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell and back-up shooters Jaden Schutt and Joey Baker.

During the year, Keels would stand to make a lot of money as Duke gets ready to rev up its NIL machine even further. For comparison: the $2 million Jeff Goodman projects Tshiebwe to make next season is actually slightly higher than the slotted rookie scale first-year salary for the No. 30 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. (Of course, this isn’t exactly apples-to-apples. Rookie contracts for First Round picks have at least two years of guaranteed salary, which can extend up to four, which is usually the case.)

Of note: Keels, 18, won’t turn 19 until August. He’ll still be 19 by the time of the 2023 NBA Draft, similar to plenty of one-and-done prospects. There’s work to be done, but Keels is young and developing. He will get better.

Some of the top prospects for the 2022 NBA Draft are guys that could’ve left for the 2021 Draft but decided to return for another year of college ball: Jaden Ivey, Johnny Davis, Keegan Murray and Bennedict Mathurin, to name a few. All four of those players are likely to land in the lottery for the 2022 Draft.

There’s a blueprint for Duke to show Keels: return for one more year, develop and turn into a lottery pick. If Keels gets in better shape, shows improved off-ball feel on defense and cleans up his jumper, his outlook as a prospect gets significantly altered.

Either way, Keels is in a good position. He can enter the 2022 NBA Draft, possibly crack into the First Round and start his professional career, achieving a lucrative lifelong dream. Or he gets to return to Duke as one of the top second-year prospects in college basketball, make money from his NIL and look to launch the Jon Scheyer era with a deep postseason run.

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