The Cautionary Tale of Trevor Keels
Why the league's new tool of using two-way contracts for second-round picks should cause trepidation for all young prospects on the fence of declaring for the draft
After watching Duke’s exit in the round of 32 during this year’s NCAA Tournament, I couldn’t help but think how they’d fare if they had one more seasoned scoring guard on their roster. In fact, it’s easy to imagine who that player should be. He was in Durham a season ago, then made the decision to declare for the NBA Draft despite not being projected by many draft pundits as a first-round pick.
That player was Trevor Keels, the 19-year-old from Clinton, Maryland who played as one of the youngest freshmen in the nation last year. Keels’ role for the Blue Devils was different playing next to Paolo Banchero and Wendell Moore (two wing creators who liked the ball in their hands) than it would have been this season with Kyle Filipowski, Dariq Whitehead, Tyrese Proctor, or Dereck Lively.
Keels was super young and raw, but showcased a fair amount of potential. He’s super strong for a guard, could play versatile defense, had a pretty jumper, and could be a sound decision-maker with the ball in his hands.
With another year of development in Durham, Keels could’ve been the leader of this team. He’d add real offensive firepower to a group that routinely played three bigs, finished 210th in the country in 3-point shooting percentage, and played without an injured Dariq Whitehead for stretches. Becoming more of a focal point and showing off his improvements — plus getting to bring up his 3-point percentage from the disappointing 31.2% it was at as a freshman — could have made Keels a first-round selection in 2023.
Instead, Keels declared for the draft a season ago in hopes of going in the first round. He fell to the 42nd pick and was selected by the New York Knicks.
The difference between being drafted in the first round (top 30) and the second round is pretty astronomical in terms of security, contract length, and developmental plans. All first-round picks are subject to a rookie scale contract, as negotiated on by the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA). All players drafted have a set amount of money they can make and are signed to a standard four-year deal, where the first two years are fully guaranteed. The trigger dates on years three and four come about nine months before the contract runs out. At the very least, all first-round picks get two years to prove themselves, and most get three or even four.
Once selection #31 is on the clock, the standard rookie scale deals are out the window. Players taken in the second round have no guarantees for contract length, which is then negotiated between the team and player's agent.
Some second-round picks nowadays are asked to sign a two-way deal, swinging between the NBA’s big league club and their G-League affiliate. That’s what happened with Keels, who signed a two-way deal with the Knicks back in July.
Once the ink is dry, the developmental trajectory of the prospect is often interrupted and at the whims of the team. Keels spent the majority of the season with the Westchester Knicks, and then was a roster casualty in February when the Knicks needed some frontcourt depth. He was released from his two-way, converted to a 10-day, and then re-signed to a two-way once Moses Brown’s time was up. All the while, Keels played 0 minutes in the NBA between October 24th and March 1st.
There are several restrictions that come with being on a two-way that further limit the ability to show one’s worth in the first season. Those include being ineligible for the postseason (unless converted to a standard contract) and only having 50 games per season to play in with the NBA club.
The largest and most notable dropoff is the financial change, though. Two-way players make half the salary of a rookie minimum deal:
$502k doesn’t sound too shabby to you or me, but in comparison to the multi-million guarantees that first-rounders get, it’s a major dropoff. Players who declare for the draft have little to no leveraging power once they are selected. If they’re valued and the team has roster space, they can get the rookie minimum deal and secure themselves a few guaranteed years with the club. Or the team can push for the two-way option with their second-rounder.
While Keels has been able to develop somewhat comfortably in Westchester, there’s no guarantee or incentive for the Knicks to keep him beyond this season. Ultimately, Keels needs to perform well enough in the G-League to show his potential to stick around on a long-term standard contract (or a second and final year on a two-way deal). If he does not, there’s nothing stopping the Knicks from simply walking away — even in the middle of this season — and making Keels a teenage free agent looking for both a home and a place to improve.
The standard G-League salary, if Keels were only able to sign a G-League contract, is the equivalent of $40,000 per year, less than one-tenth of the two-way contract amount and a mere 1/25th of the salary he would be receiving as a first-round pick. The risk of not performing on a two-way is quite high.
Last year, the Knicks did that with Keels, the Charlotte Hornets did with Bryce McGowens, the Los Angeles Clippers with Moussa Diabate, the Boston Celtics with JD Davison, and the Indiana Pacers with Kendall Brown. Five one-and-dones who went in the second round were given only two-way deals; the other four (Caleb Houston, Max Christie, Kennedy Chandler, and Josh Minott) signed more secure main roster deals.
It’s easy to look at a guy like McGowens as the success story of that group. He’s played well for the Charlotte Hornets this year and showed promise throughout the season. In late February, he was converted from a two-way to a regular contract, spanning four years and worth $7 million, with $2.79 million guaranteed.
While the success of McGowens can show the upward mobility that’s possible from a two-way, it’s also worth noting the litany of injuries the Hornets have faced at the guard spot which led to McGowens getting an opportunity. LaMelo Ball only played in 36 games, Gordon Hayward and Dennis Smith Jr. have both been banged up, and issues with second-year prospect James Bouknight have made him unreliable in their absence. While McGowens capitalized on the opportunity and earned the deal with his play, not every two-way player will be given the same chance to get minutes with the big league club.
All this is to say that the dozens of freshmen in college basketball need to be wary of declaring for the draft if they are not firmly entrenched in the first-round conversation. Aside from a late slide from Kendall Brown over the final month, each of those nine players was seen in every public forum and expert mock draft as borderline first-rounders at best in 2022.
The league has worked to try and make the two-way contract more stable so that players on them (who are usually young and in need of more consistency around them to be successful) can keep developing. They eased the restrictions on two-ways, from 45 total days with the team to up to 50 games. Players can now be with the NBA team longer, attending practices and still on the end of the bench without the worry of wasting one of their 45 days with the club by not playing them. That ticking clock could see a two-way player’s time expire without getting much run to prove themselves.
Teams benefit greatly from the rule change too, and can essentially use the two-way now as a developmental training contract for young players who they’re intrigued by long-term but don’t want to eat up a spot on their 15-man roster for. The law of unintended consequences of this change likely will lead to more teams viewing the contract as such an option in the future — and planning for it on draft night.
As of now, 12 NBA teams have three or fewer roster openings this summer once free agency begins. Of those 12, 11 have a first-round selection (Orlando and Indiana could have two) who will eat into the number of roster spots up for grabs. Nearly half the league could be out of space for fully-guaranteed second-round contracts.
Looking ahead to the 2023 draft, there are close to a dozen freshmen who are teetering on the cusp of first-round range. Without firmly entrenching themselves in that territory pre-draft, they become at risk of falling into the two-way trap.
Back in early January, we wrote a list of 20 freshmen who were squarely on the fence of being a 2023 draft selection.
Some on that list, such as Jalen Hood-Schifino and Taylor Hendricks, have surely inked their spots in this draft class. Others are pretty much certain to return (or at least not ready to be drafted) like Florida State’s Baba Miller or Indiana’s Malik Reneau. There are also several other players to be added to the list of draft hopefuls who weren’t on our initial version, guys like Florida wing Riley Kugel and Kentucky wing Chris Livingston.
So many will be tempted to cash in on positive last impressions, either through the NCAA Tournament or the end of the regular season. But thanks to the rise in two-way contracts for rookies and other mitigating factors in 2024, a more prudent approach is necessary. Now more than ever, the risk associated with falling to the second round is a financial one.
With NIL money changing the landscape of college basketball, these prospects have a lot to think about. Many can earn as much (if not more) of the maximum $502k of a two-way deal by returning to school. College provides a stable environment for their skill development, guaranteed minutes/ on-court role, and a chance to beat up on some inexperienced freshmen the next year.
Most draft pundits also believe the 2024 draft class will be relatively weak on top-end talent and one-and-done impact. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony calls it “a weak incoming freshman class”, noting that many analysts don’t see any of the top freshmen as “surefire, elite prospects.” The doors are open for several sophomores to improve their stock and become bonafide top-20 selections in 2024.
Of course, the decision to declare for the draft is a deeply individual one. Some players use college basketball solely as a vehicle for going pro, and one year is all they can tolerate. Others didn’t have a joyous experience, see talented freshmen coming in behind them to change their roles, or simply have family pressures to take the shot at the dream now. Whatever they decide, all the power to them — these players should be the ones to make the decision that’s ultimately best for them.
The point is this: the changes in the two-way contract structure force prospects on the fence to think about their declaration process a little differently. Gone are the days when second-round picks were routinely given a certain level of financial protection. Teams can now circumvent guaranteeing anything to second-rounders by signing them to a two-way deal, simultaneously straining the long-term security a player has to develop in that team’s system and raising the risk on the player if they don’t produce right away.
In an ever-changing NBA, these young players must be aware of these possibilities before they make their decision to forego a second college basketball season.