While recruiting rankings certainly don’t mean everything, the level of talent that it takes to be able to become a 5-star recruit is almost unthinkable. With so few players being able to stake that claim in any given year, it takes a truly special athlete to reach that level.
In 2010, Rivals ranked guard Keala King as a 5-star and one of the top guards in the country, ahead of future NBA players like Kendall Marshall, Shabazz Napier, Keith Appling and a few others. ESPN thought much the same of him and even went as far to compare him to current superstar James Harden.
Through some bad luck and misunderstand, however, King finds himself on the outside looking in. By this point many have dismissed him, but all he is looking for is one chance.
His story begins in Compton, California. Though he grew up in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country in a single-parent home, King tells Ridiculous Upside that he gained the respect of his peers right away.
"Growing up in Compton wasn’t really hard because everybody in the neighborhood knew that I played basketball and that I was very serious about it. Every day I would be shooting after school, so any of the gangb-bangers or those types of people showed me respect because they saw that I had something positive going for me," King said.
After transferring from Dominguez High School to Mater Dei High School, which has been home to countless athletes over the past few decades, King began to rise up the recruiting rankings.
Though he was gaining national attention, he was largely unaware of it due to all of the other responsibilities that he had going on in his life. With his father in prison and his mother discovering that she had breast cancer, King was concerned more with his off the court life as well as just playing basketball rather than on any recruiting rankings.
"I’m not big on TV or social media, so I don’t really know what’s being said, I’m only worried about playing basketball. When I was highly ranked, I didn’t really even know," he explained. "After games I would have to race home just to see my brothers and sisters. In a sense it helped because I think it’s easy to get distracted by that stuff."
A 3.5 GPA offered him numerous opportunities that included Harvard, Stanford and California, but an unofficial visit that he had taken to Arizona State during his junior year sold him on attending the school and filling the void that James Harden (then a college sophomore) would leave once he entered the NBA Draft at the end of that season.
"I took an unofficial visit and that happened to be when Harden was there. I went to one of their games and since I’m left-handed, obviously the coach is saying that what Harden was doing is what I was going to be doing if I signed to play there," said King.
He was excited to get started in Tempe, but right off of the bat things had changed from what he was told throughout the recruiting process. With a lack of depth at the point guard spot, Coach Herb Sendek wanted King to play point guard, a position that he had never played to that point in his career.
"I was never a point guard. I had players in high school that were really solid, so I never really had to play until I got to college. Coach Herb asked me to play point guard only because we didn’t have any legit point guards," he added. "I had to fill in the blanks and it was uncomfortable, but when I signed my paper I told my coach that whatever the team needs, I’m all in."
He played just under 13 minutes per game during his freshman year, but as he went into his second year he took a big leap in his development and became the team’s leading scorer throughout the first half of the season. His on-court play was going very well, but a few off-court issues were what grabbed headlines for both King and the Sun Devils as a program.
"What really went wrong was my coach thinking my off-court actions were something different than what I was telling him. My mother used to go to all of my games in high school, but when she was diagnosed with cancer during my senior year she wasn’t able to go to them," King explained. "We had a road trip coming up that would take us through a few different schools in California, so her and the rest of my family would be there and I was really excited about it in the weeks leading up to it. I really depended on her, so it meant a lot for her to be able to see me play."
He continued, "Shortly before that trip, a teammate had accused me and a few of my other teammates of using drugs, although I had passed each of the four or five drug tests that I had been given that year. I told my coach straight up that if he believed my teammate, he could drug test me on the spot. He said that the NCAA mandated that he gave me a 24-hour notice before giving me a drug test and because of that he was going to suspend me for the road trip."
Now unable to play in front of his mother, King was incredibly upset. During his suspension, the team required him to participate in workouts while they were on their road trip, but he chose not to attend.
"I was very stubborn and arrogant at the time. They didn’t trust my word against his, so I chose to not attend. Right when Coach Sendek came back from the trip, he saw that I didn’t attend and he just let me go." King pointed out. "A couple of coaches and players told the coach that they were leaving because he kicked me off of the team."
Despite the turmoil at Arizona State, King managed to land on his feet and enrolled at Long Beach State University, which was just 20 minutes away from his home in Compton.
Playing with James Ennis, King was third on the team in assists per game and fourth in both points and rebounds. Once again, however, there were some broken promises from the coaching staff that ultimately left the relationship beyond repair. Going into his senior year, King chose to transfer to University of Pikeville in Kentucky, more than 30 hours away from home and away from the national spotlight. The coach at Pikeville, Kelly Wells, knew of his talent and well as the trouble that had plagued him at previous schools. With those in mind, he wanted to help him grow both on and off of the court.
"My staff and I did our research and due diligence on Keala and knew his past well and we were excited when we talked with him about the changes he wanted to make the focus shift he intended to make. We knew he was an unbelievable talent and could do all parts of the game of basketball and had no ceilings in terms of his abilities. He just needed to shift priorities and his focus," Wells noted.
With only basketball to concentrate on, King continued to develop the talent that he shown in high school and at both of his stops in college. Playing just under 28 minutes per game, he averaged nearly 16 points on 53% shooting and he also grabbed 6 rebounds per game. Off of the court, Wells was very impressed with the change that he had seen in King.
"We had the belief that if he came to Pikeville we had to wipe the slate clean with him and judge him only on him from that date forward. He responded well in our smaller environment and loving community both academically and socially. On the court, it was a struggle early to get him structured into what we expected him to do compared to what he had done in the past, but he bought into our philosophy here and flourished as the season went on," Well continued. "He would certainly fall into the category of being one of the top players in regards to talent level in my career."
Playing for three different colleges obviously wasn’t his plan going into college, but the ability to learn so many different systems set him up for success at the professional level.
"Playing at three different programs impacted me a lot because now I’m able to play in all kinds of systems. If a coach wants to run zone, or man-to-man or a matchup zone, I would be able to adapt very quickly because I have experience each of them," said King.
Following his standout season at Pikeville in which he was named Second-Team NAIA All-American, he was eligible for the NBA D-League Draft. As the rounds went by, it was made clear that teams were not yet willing to take a chance on him. Not shaken by this, King went to work and played in the Drew League, a place that he had played in for years. Despite his experience he went in wanting to prove something this time around.
"I started playing in the Drew League at a very young age. I was the youngest player to play in that league and it’s helped my overall game to be able play with more aggressive players," he said. "College basketball isn’t nearly as aggressive as the Drew League and neither is the game overseas, so it really shows if you really know how to play."
He stood out enough to be able to catch the eye of Agustinos Eras, a professional team in Spain’s Primera Division de Baloncesto. Though he wanted to be playing in the NBA or the D-League, he was happy to be able to continue playing professionally.
"I loved it. I was able to experience different things and live in a different culture. I was playing with guys that didn’t speak English, so I had to adapt and make sure that we were always on the same page. I came in during the middle of the season, so I just wanted to fit in and make sure that I didn’t mess up what I had going for them. I ended up as a starter, so it was a really great time," King continued.
With his season coming to an end in Spain, he’s now looking for an opportunity to break into the D-League. He knows that he has a reputation from his time at Arizona State, but he’s made strides to change for the better.
"I think I’ve changed dramatically because of what I’ve been through. If the past few years had never occurred, I still would have been the same brat from the inner city. Now I’m able to get past when things aren’t going my way and put negative energy into something positive on the court," he said. "I just want to play basketball and do whatever the coach needs or says and I just plan to keep my head down and play hard and play the at the level that I know I can."
On the court, King is a player that can contribute to a team immediately. He has shown the ability to get to the rim at will and although his jump shot needs a bit of work, he can run an offense efficiently and provide a matchup nightmare with his size. Defensively, King lacks the ideal length that coaches seek, but on the ball he is able to use his athleticism and lateral quickness to stick with his man.
"I can do whatever any D-League team needs or asks of me. If they need a scorer, I’ve been a leading scorer for a Division I school and I can do that. If they need a 6’6 point guard that can distribute, I’ve done that at high levels, too. In Spain, I was always asked to guard the best player on each team that we played, so I can contribute there as well," King alluded to.
While he ultimately has bigger goals in mind, signing into the D-League would be a step in the right direction for King. After being a highly touted prospect, the talent is there; all he needs is the opportunity.
"Joining the D-League would mean a lot to me. It would get me closer to my dream of playing in the NBA and it would give me hope and motivation to continue on. I know the DL brings more exposure and I just want everyone to see that I’ve changed. I looked in the mirror long enough and I can’t blame anyone else but myself," he concluded. "When you stop blaming people, you get to see different perspective and I saw that things had to change and I’ve made changes and I’ve grown. This is more than just basketball now, this is about me proving myself as a person."