Much of the conversation surrounding Christian Keeling’s reemergence into Roy Williams’ — and, seemingly, the Basketball Gods’ — good graces has honed in on the graduate guard’s uptick in scoring volume and efficiency.
Deservedly so. The 6-4 Georgia native has found the bottom of the net on a consistent basis over his last three games (at Florida State, versus Duke, at Wake Forest), averaging 14 points on an efficient clip of 54.8% from the floor, 42.9% from three, and 100% (5-5) from the line.
Making his recent scoring output even more impressive, and perhaps even more surprising, is looking at exactly how it compares to the prior month and a half of basketball. Over his last three games, Keeling has scored 42 points, compared to only 43 points over the prior stretch of 11 (!) games.
Once noticeably filled with indecision and angst, Keeling is seemingly playing freer and lighter than he has all season, confidently stepping into the same shots that he would miss just weeks ago.
It isn’t as if he’s changed his mannerisms as a scorer. He’s still the long-two king who’ll turn down a three for a pull-up 18-footer any chance he can, and he’s not one to shy away from Jordanesque fall-aways with defenders draped over him. These shots aren’t high-percentage looks by any means, but the confidence he exudes makes them seem like layups.
Witnessing Keeling return to the player he was at Charleston Southern — a successful gunner with respectable percentages — has been a joy, especially when considering the struggles, both personal and team-wide, that he’s endured this season.
The scoring is a promising development and its value cannot be understated during North Carolina’s recent four-game skid. It is something to enjoy, but it’s not the only area of his game that he’s made noticeable strides at improving.
On the defensive end, Keeling has found his footing as a legitimate positive, even if an inconsistent one. He isn’t a difference-maker, but his impact on that end has been encouraging as he’s racked up 1.7 steals over his last four games while sporting a positive defensive box plus/minus over his last six.
While BPM and net rating indicate his tangible impact on defense, the film underscores it, particularly in his crisp footwork on his point-of-attack defense, his disruption defending from the nail, and his knack for dislodging the ball from opposing ball-handlers.
He’s not a perfect defender. Admittedly, and, obviously, defense isn’t even his strong suit. He can be jumpy when closing out on shooters, is liable to fall for a pump fake (seen in two and-ones against Wake Forest, one of which came on a three), and he’s too willing to separate from the strong-side corner to stunt in on a drive or completely cut off penetration of any kind.
When disciplined, his eagerness as an aggressor off-ball can prove fruitful, especially when he and the team’s help defenders are playing in sync with one another.
There are plenty of instances where Keeling would arguably be better off not straying from his man to alter a drive, specifically when bigs are already in the paint ready to contain, but his overzealousness isn’t disastrous whenever he manages to close out on the shooter with enough speed to deter a clean shot.
His work off-ball is hit or miss, but when he hits, he hits. He’s made some impressive anticipatory reads, on aforementioned drives (by stunting or cutting off baseline passes) and by jumping passing lanes or by deflecting catchable passes.
His work defending from the nail — essentially, the area encompassing the free throw line and elbows — has been really, really impressive due to the numerous ways he’s able to affect the comfort levels of opposing players who are trying to navigate (in or near) that region.
While drifting off of his man to congest the block, he doesn’t fully commit until he notices Wake’s center go up into his shooting motion, effectively contesting and forcing an ugly miss.
When focused on plays unfolding on the perimeter, Keeling has succeeded in making life difficult for any ball-handler wishing to penetrate the defense, due to how annoyingly handsy he is by forcefully swiping at the ball and digging on drives. Against FSU’s Devin Vassell and Duke’s Tre Jones — a wing with average ball control versus one of the nation’s best floor general — Keeling’s digs resulted in turnovers.
Where Keeling has shined the most on defense over the last few games has been his picturesque technical approach when patiently closing out on shooters, cutting off drivers, or smothering players at the point of attack. The fluidity of his hip turns, balance to immediately alter his momentum, and crisp footwork to slide (both in space and even through screens) while seated in his stance has all been remarkable to see.
Although some defenders’ balance would be shot if they were to rise off their heals to deter a shot attempt, putting them at risk of getting blown by, Keeling possesses the requisite foot speed and balance to quickly plant himself back onto the hardwood and lock himself back onto his assignment, even steering them away from the basket.
The depth of his stance and speed at which he slides his feet in lock-step with ball-handlers large and small enables him to wall off drives to the basket, forcing opponents to give up on their hopes of even reaching the paint.
And, when ball-handlers are unable to turn the corner on him or find a lane to the rack, he doesn’t give up an inch on their hapless pull-up attempts, giving shooters zero room to breathe.
Even in some of his lowlights, such as the four-point play he gave up against Wake Forest, exhibited his sound footwork, as he ate a screen without flinching, sticking with his man before unfortunately falling for the shot fake.
These strides that Christian Keeling has made over recent weeks deserve recognition, as he’s inched his way towards performing like the player Carolina believed it was getting whenever he transferred to the program last April.
Points are more glamorous, as is the nature of scoring. The drained mid-range jumpers and contested pull-ups have drawn plenty of attention, but Keeling isn’t merely a one-way player bereft of defensive utility.
As the recent stretch has shown, he can be quite good on that end, too.