'Bro, relax': Christian Keeling Close to Putting it All Together for Tar Heels

Brant Wilkerson-New

CHAPEL HILL — No stranger to frustration over the past year himself, Leaky Black could see his new teammate Christian Keeling pressing as his North Carolina career got off to a slow start.

“Every game, after every shot he missed, he was like, ‘Dang, bruh,’” Black said. “It’s like, ‘Bro, relax; we’ve got a lot of ball to play.’”

It’s a reasonable thought process for a player who, after scoring more than 1,600 points and averaging 17.9 per game in three seasons at Charleston Southern, came to Carolina with a chance to make a major impact with his scoring and experience.

Add to that the fact that he could prove himself at an ACC program, and that opportunity comes with pressure, and for the first two games, it appeared that pressure was taking a toll as Keeling managed a total of nine points, four rebounds and six turnovers in 44 minutes.

Speaking last week before Carolina’s victory over Gardner-Webb, Roy Williams noted it wasn’t just a simple for Justin Pierce, who came from William & Mary, and Keeling as picking up where they left off.

“I think every day you’ve got to remind them and try to get them prepared that it is a much different level,” he said. “Nothing against their programs, but this is a different level and most of the time the competition you’re going to face every night is better than you’ve ever faced.”

Coming out against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, a program Keeling had gotten to know in the Big South, he took a different approach after making just 4 of 13 field goal attempts and 1 of 6 from 3-point range in his first two games.

“I try to let my defense still be solid, let me get it going off defense and just buy into the team goals,” he said. “I had a rough start, so I’m just trying to move on.”

Keeling’s nine points on 4/9 from the field with four rebounds, two assists and two blocks against Gardner-Webb was by no means his best performance, but included flashes of the offensive ability he showed when he made 5 of 7 field goal attempts and scored 14 points in the exhibition victory over Winston-Salem State.

He beat his man off the dribble for a lay up in the first half, and early in the second half, he nailed a jumper off a well-executed curl and followed that up with a 3-pointer from the wing, just in front of a Carolina bench that erupted as it went down, understanding what it meant for him to get going.

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Amid the tough start for Keeling, his teammates haven’t worried a bit.

“His shots haven’t fallen so far, but we’ve seen what he can do in practice,” Pierce said. “What he’s done in his three years at Charleston Southern speaks for itself.”

Perhaps most telling was a moment in the second half when Keeling passed on a 3-point attempt, causing several on the Carolina bench to throw their hands up in frustration.

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There’s no doubt, they want Keeling putting it up.

“Leaky, man, he’s encouraged me,” Keeling said. “He tells me he wants me to shoot … he says shoot it every time; all my teammates say that. When you’ve got teammates and your coaches saying that, it makes you even more confident even though you’re missing. ‘Keep shooting, because eventually it’s going to fall,’ and I know I’m a good shooter, so I know it’s going to fall.”

While Friday might not have been close to Keeling’s potential, it was a step in the right direction toward building his confidence, and having played alongside Coby White in AAU ball and last season at Carolina, Black has seen just what belief can do for a shooter.

“It’s just a confidence level at this level at the end of the day,” Black said. “A guy like Coby, all he had was confidence and you see him breaking records left and right. C.K., I feel like he can shoot the ball just as good as Coby once he gets his confidence.

“At the end of the day, I just keep feeding him confidence, hopefully it’ll go in like today.”

As for Keeling, he feels like his best is right around the corner —not that stats necessarily matter, so long as the Tar Heels are winning.

“I think one or two games away, man. I feel real good out there; I don’t get discouraged,” he said. “I’m happy; regardless of how I play, we got the dub and I’m just happy.”