LAS VEGAS — It’s hard to avoid focusing on the faces in the crowd at the Thomas and Mack Center, with team executives getting face-to-face chances to talk trades and veteran stars taking courtside seats at Summer League turning to catch the brief flashes of the lottery picks on the court.
But much of the play at the Summer League consists of players trying to catch an eye of those executives — second-round picks, undrafted players, G Leaguers looking for their opportunity. Some of them already are in their mid- to-late 20s in a league that searches for one-and-done college stars.
And then there are players such as Trevor Keels, a highly recruited high schooler who went to Duke for one season and opted to enter the draft but saw himself slip through the first round undrafted. He finally heard his name at No. 42 overall when the Knicks selected him. Keels was in the starting lineup Friday night for the Knicks’ Summer League opener, and he wanted to begin showing that he belongs.
Keels earned a reputation at Duke as a powerful slashing scorer, a hard-nosed player. And when his Summer League debut ended with 1-for-8 shooting and three points, he wasn’t going to be deterred. He also had four steals and six rebounds, showing off some of the other parts of his game, but mostly he was just excited to be here.
“Just had chills, especially in the walkway before the game, seeing the crowd, seeing the NBA logo,” Keels said. “It’s a lot of emotions. I’m proud of myself, proud of the guys that helped me get here, supported me. I made it.
“I remember watching this on TV all the time, begging my dad to come to Vegas to come to a game, and now I’m playing. So definitely excited. Can’t wait to hug my mom and dad. I’m excited.
“I didn’t think I was going to go that low, but it is what it is. God’s got a path for me. I’m big on God, so I believe in him and of course I’m going to make sure all the teams pay for passing up on me. I’m definitely excited I’m a Knick. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m happy where I’m at and I’m going to make the best out of it.”
Keels signed a two-way contract with the Knicks, and given their crowded backcourt, he likely will spend some time with the Westchester Knicks in the G League. But for now, he is learning to fit in. After playing for Mike Krzyzewski, he believes Tom Thibodeau’s focus on defense and hard-nosed play will be a perfect fit.
“I’m all for it,” Keels said. “I love a coach that’s going to get on you, make sure you play hard. Defense is really important. Playing for Coach K, he was big on that.
“My high school coach, my AAU coach, I always played for that coach that’s going to get into you, [who’s] not that easy. I love coaches like that. I love the challenges. I love tackling challenges. Coach Thibs is a great guy, gives me good advice, but he’s going to get on you when you’re not playing hard, so I love it.
“Me just being a dog, doing whatever it takes to win, having that dog mentality. That’s the biggest thing. I don’t care about points. That’s not a big thing for me. I think it’s doing whatever it’s going to take for them to win. That’s the biggest thing for me.
“So I’m going to be a dog every possession, try to be the best player, do whatever it takes on offense and defense, just be that complete dog.”
While the seats around the court have included a number of players — LeBron James, Draymond Green, Ben Simmons, a quartet of Knicks (Julius Randle, Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley and Cam Reddish) among them — the players most on everyone’s minds remain Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
The two Nets stars are the start of every conversation. Scouts and other front office personnel preceded every question with their own query about the latest on the Nets’ efforts to move them.
Nets general manager Sean Marks made the rounds through the two connected arenas where the games are being played, but some officials from other teams believe that there might be no rush to get a deal done. With in-person meetings, it could accelerate, but sources indicated that the Nets’ desired return remains far from what teams are willing to surrender.
In clearing cap space for the free-agent acquisitions of Jalen Brunson and Isaiah Hartenstein, the Knicks had to make some tough decisions. While they didn’t shed a tear over parting with Kemba Walker and Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks was one of Tom Thibodeau’s favorites.
And then there was Taj Gibson.
Gibson played for Thibodeau with the Bulls and Timberwolves before joining him in New York. He was a reliable veteran, a conduit from the coach to the young players in the locker room and in practice and a contributor on the court. He already has spoken about possibly joining Thibodeau as an assistant coach when his playing days are done.
But the Knicks waived Gibson on Friday, removing his non-guaranteed $5.2 million contract from their salary cap.
While the Knicks had hoped to be able to bring Gibson back after finalizing their other contracts this summer, he is expected to sign with the Washington Wizards after clearing waivers Sunday.
While Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has openly discussed the loss of Jalen Brunson to the Knicks in free agency, the Knicks have remained silent about his signing, which is expected to be completed this week.
One league source with knowledge of the Brunson deal said a decision still has not been made about whether the Mavericks will engage in a sign-and-trade with the Knicks.
A sign-and-trade would mostly benefit the Mavericks, allowing them to at least obtain a trade exception if they didn’t want or couldn’t agree on a player to come back in a deal for Brunson. The Knicks don’t need the sign-and-trade now that they have cleared the cap space to sign him.
Ferron Hunt, who is on a two-way contract, had 17 points and seven steals for the Knicks in Friday’s opening win over Golden State. He also had a number of aggressive dunks . . . Speaking of dunks, Detroit rookie Jalen Duren made his debut Thursday with a lob dunk from fellow lottery pick Jaden Ivey. He followed with a few dunks that looked as if the muscular 18-year-old might pull the backboard down.