Duke’s Trevor Keels shows how to ‘test the waters’ at NBA Draft Combine, but getting picked is the tricky part

CHICAGO- For the prospective NBA player who doesn’t know if he’s an NBA player yet but is going through the process to pursue that elusive answer, it is never easy to address the question of how that endeavor might conclude. They could learn much from Trevor Keels, who is on his way to the league after a single season at Duke. Or not.

“Right now, I’m just focused on this process,” Keels told The Sporting News.

What a refreshing response this was to hear on the opening day of the NBA Draft Combine. There was no sales job involved, no ruse, just a straight answer that makes it clear Keels is putting all his energy into the task at hand while silently acknowledging there are other possibilities for his immediate future.

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In conversations earlier in the week during the G League Elite camp with multiple players earlier who retain the option of returning to NCAA basketball, there was a common refrain of “all-in” or “100 percent committed” to remaining on the draft’s early entry list – even among those who likely will return to college for another year. It’s not the players’ fault; they’re almost certainly repeating the answer their representatives told them to provide in the hopes their efforts will be taken seriously by those in team front offices who make draft decisions.

Keels regularly has been conversing with new Duke coach Jon Scheyer, who no doubt would love to have back a player who averaged 30 minutes and 11.5 points as a freshman for a team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and reached the 2022 Final Four.

“He’s giving me my space. Me and him still talk all the time, but it’s nothing about, ‘He wants me back at Duke.’ He supports me all the way on this. This has always been my dream. He knows I can attack it, and he believes in me.

“When it’s time to make the decision, I’ll make the decision. Right now, I’m just focusing on how to compete at a high level.”

Of the roughly 35 players who participated in the scrimmage games Thursday at the Combine, most still have college eligibility remaining because of the extra year provided to players during the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 1/3 of them are serious candidates to choose another year of college over gambling against the odds on draft selection, given there in many cases is far more money available to them in Name/Image/Likeness payments than there would be in the developmental G League.

There are almost as many different approaches to this as there are players maintaining that option. For all but the rarest of exceptions, though, it begins with more intense attention to their bodies and skill development, which can help improve their results in whatever basketball venues they enter.

Arkansas center Jaylin Williams, who is 6-10, 245 pounds and averaged 10.9 points and 9.8 rebounds as a sophomore for the Elite Eight Razorbacks, is one of the most skilled ballhandlers one can find at his size and uses that to thrash opponents’ pick -and roll defending. But he shot only 17-of-71 from the shorter college three-point distance.

Jaylin Williams

“I knew I wanted to get down to an area where I could focus on me, focus on my body, focus on my game and focus on getting better, really,” Williams told TSN. “I knew I was able to do that getting to Miami and start working out every day, three or four times a day, and I just started changing my body, changing my game, and that’s been my attack.

“I’ve really been working to develop that outside 3 a lot more, running actions at a better pace, being able to be in better shape. I think I’ve gotten better, for sure. My body is changed – I’ve lost body fat. I’ve lost weight. My 3-pointer is looking way better.” He made only 1-of-4 in his first Combine scrimmage, but that was from the (much) longer NBA 3-point distance.

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Keels, as well, mentioned he lost body fat through his pre-Combine training program. He looks far leaner than he did while uniformed in a Blue Devils. NBA testing indicated his percentage was measured at 13.5 percent. He allowed to TSN it had been at 22 percent, unusual for an elite athlete. He weighed in at 224 pounds, right around his listed Duke roster weight, but he said he “dropped about 10 pounds” along with the body fat.

These are improvements that could have been addressed in their college programs, but the opportunity to directly audition for NBA teams increases the urgency.

“I feel more in shape, feel way better when I’m out there,” Keels said.

One of the common approaches for underclassmen declaring for the 2022 NBA Draft was to enter the transfer portal at or around the same time. Forward Keion Brooks, who has played three seasons for Kentucky, took this step even though he had mostly nice things to say about his experience in Lexington and said he would embrace the possibility of returning for another season with the Wildcats.

“That was something that my parents and my agent and I, we all talked about, talked about it would be something good for me to do, just to keep all my options open,” Brooks told TSN. “Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you who’s recruiting me or anything. But they just thought that would be something – I’m not pigeon-holing myself to do one thing, if something else were to happen.

“Kentucky took good care of me while I was there. The transfer portal thing, like I said, is to make sure my options are open.”

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