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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Christian Keeling

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The graduate transfer should provide instant offense

NCAA Basketball: Charleston Southern at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

After taking a week-long hiatus to allow fans to bask in UNC’s newfound status as a football school, we continue our UNC summer preview series. You can catch-up on the entire series at the links below. I recommend you do that before we dive into today’s selected player, graduate transfer Christian Keeling.

June 23rd: Brandon Robinson preview
June 30th: Brandon Huffman preview
July 8th: Sterling Manley preview
July 15th: Andrew Platek preview
July 21st: Garrison “Mr. Pickle” Brooks preview
July 29th: Rechon “Leaky” Black Preview
August 12th: Anthony Harris Preview
August 19th: Jeremiah Francis Preview
August 26th: Armando Bacot
September 3rd: Cole Anthony

We provided some extensive analysis of Keeling when he committed. A graduate transfer from Charleston Southern, he arrives to UNC with one year of eligibility remaining. Standing at 6’4 and 175 lbs, he joins the team with a reputation as a traditional shooting guard whose primary focus is putting the ball in the basket. Pretty simple. Even ESPN’s National Recruiting Director Paul Biancardi said as much in May.

At Charleston Southern, he was a two-time All-Big South selection. As a junior (last season), he averaged 18.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. Those scoring numbers were aided by shooting 48% from the floor and 38% from three. Regardless of the competition level, those are impressive numbers. There is a reason he was ESPN’s #7 overall available graduate transfer this past offseason.

However, to say that playing in the Big South is different from the ACC is quite an understatement. It’s normal to be concerned if a player can handle the increase in competition level after being a major impact player at a low-major. In Keeling’s case, there’s a body of work that indicates there won’t be a major learning curve.

In eight games against high major competition over three years, (Marquette, Clemson, Florida, Florida State x 2, Virginia Tech, Georgia, and Alabama), he averaged 18.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. In those eight games Keeling only scored fewer than 16 points once - when he was held to just four points against Alabama in the sixth collegiate game of his career. He did it on 49% shooting (43% from three) and 76% from the foul line. Some people just know how to get buckets, and Keeling now gets a chance to prove he’s not just a product of feasting on Big South opponents.

What does this mean for his only season in Chapel Hill?

Plain and simple, Keeling should be the favorite to replace Kenny Williams in the starting lineup. There aren’t many places in UNC’s offense for a pure shooting guard. Despite the fact that UNC’s wings are interchangeable, you will rarely see Keeling on the court with Andrew Platek (6’3, 200) or Brandon Robinson (6’4, 170). Barring struggles to acclimate to the offensive system, the conditioning, or the competition level — all viable concerns — the starting shooting guard opening is his.

That should please UNC fans. Keeling will bring an element to the 2-spot that’s been missing since Marcus Paige played extended stretches off the ball with Joel Berry. Keeling is more than an opportunistic scorer or dead-eye deep threat. Though he’s not an “above-the-rim” kind of athlete, Keeling can create his own shot and produce at all three levels. That was a key component UNC needed last season when Coby White was the team’s only player who could consistently, independently score from all over the court.

Check out this quick video for visual confirmation.

Keeling’s shooting splits were actually better than Williams’ last season. According to hoop-math.com, Keeling’s made 61.2% of his shots at the rim, 42.1% from mid-range, and 38% from three. That’s comparable to, or better than, Williams who was 63.2/38.9/29.5. Keeling also had a higher usage rate (27.3% vs 14.8%), albeit as the primary scoring option in a different system and against lesser competition. I’ll save the deeper statistical breakdown between the two players for a later date, but it’s not a stretch to say that Keeling has the tools to be an offensive improvement on the wing.

Of course, we all know that UNC values defense and rebounding as much as, if not more so, than scoring. That is where Keeling can really help the Heels stay atop the ACC. After averaging almost seven rebounds last season, Keeling won’t have a problem chasing down loose balls. His overall total will drop as Keeling is surrounded by more talent, but he should be able to replace Kenny’s 3.9 rebounds per game from last year. Cam Johnson’s rebounding from the wing also improved in his two seasons under Roy Williams. If Keeling can build upon those successes, he’ll suffice as an above-average rebounder from an oft-overlooked position.

If there is one major question, it’s whether Keeling will be an adequate defender. His DRtg last season was a respectable 94.5, which was better than every UNC starter last year. Can he maintain that success while learning UNC’s defensive system and banging against bigger, stronger, faster opponents? DRtg isn’t adjusted for competition level, so don’t grab onto that as an indication of positive (or negative) projections. Heading into the season, it’s simply a question without a viable answer.

Overall, don’t expect the same levels of production that he put up at Charleston Southern. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 minutes, 14 ppg and 4.5 rpg is a reasonable ceiling. More than that would be a surprise. Less than would be understandable. Adjust expectations accordingly.

The bottom line is this. Keeling brings three years of college experience, an ability to score all over the court, and a willingness to rebound. Without a major logjam at his position, he’ll receive ample opportunities to grow into a key contributor throughout the season. The jump in competition should not be a major concern, and he’ll be surrounded by more talent than his prior stop, thus taking the scoring burden off his shoulders.

If he can adapt to not being the primary offensive option, his skills are the perfect combination on a UNC team that doesn’t have another player like him.