You never have a second chance to make a first impression.
Trevor Keels made a pretty good first impression.
Full disclosure: I do not always get it right.
The first time I saw Bill Jackman play, I thought he would be an integral part of Mike Krzyzewski’s reboot.
The first time I saw Taylor King play in person, I was stunned by his shooting range. A 6-7 wing who could bury bombs from 30 feet?
Sign me up.
Like I said. Mistakes, I have made.
With that proviso, I’m still betting on Keels.
It’s hard for a top-20ish type recruit to fly under the radar. Under ordinary circumstances.
But last season was far from ordinary. We didn’t get to see Keels in any of the big prep all-star games, for obvious reasons.
And his recruitment came at an unusual time. Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffith signed in the fall of 2020, which gave Duke fans plenty of time to process their arrival the following season. Keels’ recruitment came in the spring, when Duke was trying to shake off the aftermath of its worst season in a generation, when players were leaving for the NBA, even when the NBA wasn’t exactly putting out the red carpet, when players were transferring out of the program and Mike Krzyzewski was scrambling to find veteran replacements.
Besides, wasn’t Keels a lock for Villanova? Or was that Virginia?
But if Keels was under the radar last spring, he certainly isn’t now, not after a riveting performance in Friday’s Countdown to Craziness intrasquad game, one in which he looked like the best player on the floor for much of the game.
I understand the cautions. Yes, it was a two 12-minute intrasquad games, a glorified practice in many respects.
But let’s hear what the head guy had to say.
“Trevor played at a great high school, St. Paul VI and he played at one of the great AAU programs, Team Takeover. As a sophomore—and that Catholic League in D.C., Maryland and Virginia is as good a league as there is—he was MVP. He’s been a top player in that league for three years, so he’s been accustomed to it. He’s an easy guy to play with. I think he’s a big-time player. I think he’s really good.”
About that prep career. Keels averaged 28.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 3.8 steals per game last season. That’s stuffing a stat sheet in a highly competitive prep league.
Keels is listed at 6-4, 221 pounds. Having seen him up close, that’s a sculpted 221 pounds. He’s 18 going on 25. Think taller DeMarcus Nelson or more skilled David Henderson.
Or tight end.
And guess what? Krzyzewski said Keels had the best VO2 on the team. That’s a measurement of cardiovascular efficiency.
“He never gets tired.” That’s something we’ve heard over the years about lean greyhounds like Johnny Dawkins or Bobby Hurley.
But not someone with Keels’ body profile.
Krzyzewski frequently responded to losses last season with some variation of “they knocked us back,” they being Duke’s stronger, older opponents.
Flipping that script was a priority this season. Duke brought in bruising center Theo John, a 6-9, 242-pound grad-student transfer from Marquette. Presumptive top-3 2022 draft pick Banchero is listed at 6-10, 250. According to draft analysts, the 6-6, 220-pound Griffin’s middle name could be “NBA-ready-body.” Freshman point guard Jaylen Blakes is listed at 6-1, 208. Sophomore center Mark Williams is visibly stronger.
“Our freshmen are physically mature,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re older, they’re stronger bodies. They’ve played before in big-time competition. There’s a lot more maturity than pretty much at any time last year except maybe right at the end.”
It would be a mistake to view Keels as just some sort of one-dimensional bruiser. In 24 minutes Friday night he totaled 19 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. Keels hit 8 of 14 from the field, 3 of 7 from beyond the arc. He had zero turnovers and looked comfortable at any one of the three perimeter positions, both on offense and defense. He never showed even a hint of nerves.
It’s no surprise that Keels and sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach have great chemistry. They were teammates in both high school and AAU ball, with Roach one year ahead of Keels.
“Me and Trevor have played together pretty much all our lives,” Roach said after Countdown. “We have a lot of chemistry. We know each other like the back of our hands. If something’s not going right, he’s going to tell me or I’ll tell him.”
But Banchero also says he and Keels also go way back. In fact, Banchero went on social media last spring to help recruit Keels to Duke.
“Me and Trev matched up like in eighth grade; played each other twice in Portland. We were going at it. We didn’t know each other at the time. But we were getting into it. It was close games and they beat us both games by two and Trev hit the game-winner in the second game. Automatic respect after that. We were tight after that. We were both recruited by Duke. Once I committed, he was a must-get. I don’t even like doing that [social media]. But Trevor, I had to step in and text him and be on him and you saw why tonight.”
Keels talked about that chemistry during Duke’s media day several weeks ago.
“We [Keels and Roach] knew each other before we got here. Our chemistry is crazy.”
Keels says he’s far from a finished product but relishes the opportunity to learn from Krzyzewski.
“Just learning from a person like him, he’s coached the greats, he’s coached Kobe, LeBron. Just learning from him every day is unbelievable. You’ve got to be able to learn from a guy like that.”
Keels just turned 18 in August and there are going to be growing pains. But he checks about as many boxes as anyone on this Duke team and his continued maturation should be a key to Mike Krzyzewski’s final team.