Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart has quietly put together a solid 2021 class with four signees, including 6’10 forward Keeyan Itejere, who plays at GRACE Christian School in Raleigh, N.C. while also playing for Upward Stars Southeast AAU team last summer. The three-star forward is perhaps the rawest prospect in Smart’s 2021 class, but also might have the brightest upside. I spoke with Itejere, along with his high school and AAU coaches to get a look at the Texas signee’s potential.
Human pogo stick
AAU coach Curtis Wheeler Jr. described Keeyan as a “pogo stick-type athlete.” Coaches frequently use phrases like “next-level game” and “NBA athleticism” when talking about Itejere.
Born in Las Vegas, Keeyan and his family moved to Raleigh, where he currently plays for Graceland Christian under Coach DeShannon Morris.
The key thing to remember about Keeyan (sorry I couldn’t pass up the opportunity) is that he’s only been playing basketball for a few years —like Jaxson Hayes when he arrived at Texas, Itejere is still early in his development because he grew up playing soccer and then switched to playing basketball, but didn’t see heavy minutes in competitive games until he got to high school.
“His upside is tremendous,” Coach Morris told me in a phone interview. “He’s just scratching the surface and it wouldn’t surprise me if he can become a lottery pick at Texas.”
Itejere possesses the explosiveness and handles that you would typically see from a guard, using it to his advantage against bigger and/or slower post players. He’s able to take it coast-to-coast and finish above the rim in transition in a fashion that is reminiscent of Kai Jones (more on that later).
Play of the Weekend goes to Texas commit Keeyan Itejere with the SLAM & follows it up with the BLOCK on defense...#PhenomStayPositive— Phenom Hoop Videos (@PhenomMixtapes) September 1, 2020
(@Phenom_Hoops @_PhenomDon @POBScout @Coach_Rick57 @colbylewis20 @KItejere) pic.twitter.com/GuM9zNyCxD
Itejere told me his favorite spot to score from is currently at the elbow because he can either pull up for a jumper or use his quickness to drive to the rim.
However, his coaches hope he can develop a more consistent go-to move or even counter moves and learn how to consistently rely on his speed and athleticism over his power.
Smart can use Itejere in pick-and-roll or even pick-and-pop situations as he continues to improve his shooting ability. Coaches told me that Itejere is comfortable shooting from mid-range and from three, but it’s a part of his game that he works on with dedication.
Outside of his athleticism, perhaps the most mouth-watering trait that Itejere possesses is his defensive skill — he told me his biggest strengths are “defense, blocking shots, and transition offense.”
Itejere is a rim protector and shot blocker thanks to his height and wingspan that allow him to rebound well, but he can also guard bigger players in the post or on the wing because of his athleticism.
“Keeyan can dominate a game and maybe have six points but he alters shots, gets rebounds, and causes so many mismatches for people,” Coach Morris said. “He’s a star, but he’s comfortable not getting the start treatment.”
Coaches also rave about Itejere’s ability to accept coaching and his willingness to learn, along with his humble attitude.
Both of his coaches spoke glowingly about his selflessness on the court and off the court; I’ll let Coach Morris tell you what he’s like:
“[Keeyan] is the type of person you want your daughter to marry.”
I understood what his coaches were talking about when I asked Itejere how he’s handled going from a low-minutes player to a starter and three-star athlete in just a few years.
“I was pretty blessed with the people I ran into in my life that helped me get a smooth transition, helped me work on my game,” Itejere said. “Overall, I think I’m just lucky to have a very strong support system.”
Morris raved about Keeyan’s work ethic and believes he’ll fit right in under Smart’s system.
“[Coach Smart] is getting a kid who genuinely believes in what’s going on at Texas. If he’s asked to get 10 rebounds and not shoot the ball, that’s what he’s going to do. He’s not going to question anything and he’s going to run through a wall for the coaches.”
“He’s like a kid out there playing”
While the sky is the limit for Itejere, he’s still learning how to play each time he steps on the floor.
“He’s just learning and he’s just like a kid out there playing,” Coach Wheeler Jr. said. “Sometimes he goes and goes too fast, but he’s just learning.”
Keeyan’s coaches spoke about him needing to get stronger and more confident in himself when he reaches the next level.
“I know that once [Texas] gets their hands on him he’s going to really be able to take off,” Coach Morris said. “He’s not weak, but him being able to add eight or 10 pounds of muscle is going to take his game to another level.”
Not having a go-to move along with just the overall lack of experience causes Itejere to be hesitant at times with the ball.
When I asked Coach Wheeler Jr. about his comfortability and confidence on the court he told me, “I think he’s just trying to feel his way out and see what his niches are what he’s good at.”
Becoming more comfortable on the court is something Itejere worked on during his final season in high school.
“I think it was a really big season in terms of my improvement,” Itejere said. “Just becoming more comfortable with things I wasn’t comfortable with.”
GRACE Christian experienced disruptions during their season due to COVID-19, including a seven-week layoff, but Coach Morris praised Itejere for how he handled the tough situation.
“[Keeyan] never once complained,” Coach Morris said. “He would come to practice and a full workout with a personal trainer four days a week.”
Improvements in his strength and conditioning is also something Keeyan worked hard on this summer as he prepares to make the jump to the collegiate level.
It might take some time for Itejere to get comfortable adjusting with the college game and competition that he’ll face in the Big 12, but we know what Smart can do with raw prospects.
Keeyan pointed at the bond formed with Smart as the biggest reason why he chose the Longhorns.
“We had a relationship that I didn’t really feel with any other coach,” Itejere said. “I feel like I can trust [Smart] and that he has a great plan.”
Itejere and his coaches pointed at Shaka’s ability to develop other big men into NBA draft picks such as Jarrett Allen, Mo Bamba, and Jaxson Hayes as well as current players Kai Jones and Greg Brown.
“He’s very honored to be playing as a representative of Texas, but I think Texas is equally as fortunate to get a kid like him in a family like the Itjeres,” Coach Morris said.
Comparison: Kai Jones/Jarrett Allen
This might be recency bias, but Itejere reminds me of Texas sophomore forward Kai Jones with Jarrett Allen’s defensive prowess. Jones was listed at 6’10, 210 pounds and was originally a three-star recruit before ultimately finishing as a four-star prospect.
Jones looked a little raw during his freshman campaign at Texas, but over the season got more comfortable on the floor, scoring a career-high 20 points against Oklahoma State in what ended up being the final game of the 2019-20 season.
This season the Bahamian native has turned into a more consistent player under Smart and has seen his draft stock rise — Jones is now projected to be a first-round pick, according to ESPN.
On the defensive side, Jarrett Allen averaged 1.5 blocks per game in his only season at Texas. Morris estimated Itejere averaged at least three blocks per game, including one game where he rejected six shots.
I see the same path for Itejere as Texas. It might take a season or two for him to get comfortable, but as his coaches have told me — “sky’s the limit” for Itejere.