Keion Bell could be in the NBA right now.
After leaving his former school, Pepperdine University, during the 2011 season, Bell was at a crossroads. While many collegiate basketball players jump at the chance to make it to the NBA, Bell made the decision to go in another direction. He could have been part of the 2011 draft class and started his professional career. Sports Illustrated even ranked him as a “no brainer” to enter the draft early.
Instead, Bell withdrew his name from the 2011 draft pool and transferred to Missouri.
To become an integral part of the Tigers’ rotation, Bell knew he would have to alter his playing style. At Pepperdine, he was one of the leading scorers in the country. He could shoot three-pointers with ease and his dunks were renowned nationwide for their acrobatic ability. With Missouri, however, he would play a different role.
“(I’m) just trying to make energetic plays to motivate the guys and get us going,” Bell said. “My goal is just to be a playmaker rather than to make plays by scoring.”
For Bell, the process hasn’t always been easy. After leaving Pepperdine during his junior season, Bell had to wait a full year before getting back on the court. For some players, such a long break from playing would make them rusty, but Bell said he wouldn’t let so much time off hurt his game.
“I just try to provide that spark, just try to put as much pressure on the ball as I can,” Bell said.
Coach Frank Haith said earlier in the season that Bell is the most athletic player on the team, and the 6-foot-4 senior recently showed why the Missouri coaching staff holds him in such high regard. In last Saturday’s game against Auburn, Bell showed the crowd at the Mizzou Arena how much his defense improved this season. He stole the ball three times during the game, each time ending the sequence with a slam dunk to send the crowd into a frenzy.
“Earlier on in my time here it was hard to adjust, because for so much of my life I’ve judged how I played as how I’m scoring,” Bell said. “When I came here, Coach Haith just talked to me about being an all around player, and I believe it’s made me an all around better basketball player rather than just a scorer. “
While he’s missed two games this season due to injury, Haith said when Bell has played, he shows opponents how he’s become a more complete player.
"You can see Keion starting to shape into his role and what I expect,” Haith said. “Here's a guy who was a great scorer and probably didn't play defense like this with what we expect out of him, but he's bought into doing that. He knows that's what's going to help us win basketball games."
After all, this is the guy who dunked over six people in October during Mizzou Madness. But Haith and the rest of the coaching staff aren’t asking Bell to dunk all the time or even be the Tigers’ main scoring threat. Recently, they’ve asked him to focus on two aspects of his game: being a backup point guard to junior Phil Pressey and being the defender the team needs in key situations.
Bell understands Pressey can’t be on the court for the entire game and has willingly stepped into the role of backing up the SEC preseason player of the year. For his part, Pressey said Bell helped him feel like the team is in safe hands while he gets some rest on the bench.
“Keion – he’s been working every day in practice doing whatever the coaching staff asks him to do,” Pressey said. “That’s all we can ask of him.”
Bell’s hustle on the court has not been ignored by his teammates. Junior guard Jabari Brown said when the team is struggling and Bell plays his hardest, it inspires the rest of the team.
“We see him playing that hard and it motivates everyone else,” Brown said.
For Bell, the season has been up and down as his role has continued to shift. He struggled earlier in the season against Stanford and Louisville but picked up his production during his last five games, averaging 15 points and shooting 61 percent from the field during that span.
While his role with the team continues to shift from being the backup point guard, the small forward or the starting shooting guard, Bell said he remains as flexible as ever. After spending the past five years playing at the collegiate level, he’s ready for whatever the game throws his way.
“It’s just something I’ve become used to,” Bell said.