More than Lillard’s cousin: Blevins takes circuitous route to find success with NAZ Suns

Northern Arizona Suns rookie Keljin Blevins (left) had a brief opportuity to play with the cousin Damian Lillard in Portland. (Photo courtesy Keljin Blevins)

PRESCOTT VALLEY – Not much has been given to Keljin Blevins. But that hasn’t stopped him from reaching basketball’s professional realm.

The Northern Arizona Suns rookie has found a productive role as the season has progressed, logging more than 20 minutes off the bench in multiple games. While averaging only 4.0 points, the 6-foot-6, 200-pound guard has shown growth personally and in his game, carving out a role as a player who brings defense and hustle to the floor.

“I’ve grown a lot mentally,” Blevins said. “Being stronger, more mature.”

Blevins’ journey to this point, however, hasn’t been typical for a professional player.

After graduating from Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, Blevins had zero offers from college programs, so he decided to play an extra year of AAU ball. It paid off, as he earned a scholarship to play at Southern Mississippi.

He played two seasons in Hattiesburg, Mississippi before transferring to Montana State, a Big Sky program in Bozeman, Montana. During his senior year with the Bobcats, Blevins averaged 11.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.

When the 2019 NBA Draft came around, he wasn’t a ranked prospect. But he still earned his chance at the next level.

Blevins signed a Summer League contract with the Portland Trail Blazers and later earned a spot on their preseason roster. In four preseason games with the Blazers, he averaged 4.3 points per contest. However, the Trail Blazers waived Blevins in October.

The journey of Keljin Blevins (right) to the Northern Arizona Suns included a stop at Montana State. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

While it didn’t last long, Blevins’ brief stretch in Portland gave him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play alongside his cousin, Portland point guard Damian Lillard.

“It was like a dream come true,” Blevins said. “Not a lot of people get to do that type of stuff.”

Lillard, who also played in the Big Sky Conference at Weber State, knows a thing or two about defying the odds. He came out of high school rated as just a three-star prospect but will be playing in his fifth NBA All-Star Game this weekend.

That’s why playing with Lillard was so important to Blevins – even if it was just for a few weeks.

“He tells me in our talks, ‘Don’t let any of it get to you,'” Blevins said. “‘Let it fuel you and always keep a chip on your shoulder.

“‘Never listen to the doubters; try to prove them wrong. Accept that challenge and take it face on.'”

In addition to Lillard, Blevins also rubbed elbows with C.J. McCollum, Zach Collins, Hassan Whiteside and Rodney Hood, among other seasoned veterans in Portland.

Going from a mid-major college program to playing with professional stars is a big leap, but with help from Lillard and other veterans, Blevins found his footing early on.

“It taught me to be more of a professional, being around all those older guys,” Blevins said. “Watching how they handle business, coming in every day working, getting enough sleep; just doing all the little things right. That’s one of the biggest things I learned when I was up there.”

On Oct. 26, Blevins started the next phase of his pro hoops pursuit when the NAZ Suns selected him 15th overall in the 2019 NBA G League Draft, marking the beginning of a new endeavor for the 24-year-old rookie.

Although the team, with an 8-24 record to this point, has struggled this season, Blevins has been a valuable asset in his first season in Prescott Valley. His minutes off the bench have equated to an increased hustle and physical presence on the court.

According to head coach Bret Burchard, his smooth transition from college to the professional level is responsible for this strong first season.

“I think what Keljin has done a great job in making that jump from college, where you’re the best player on your team,” Burchard said. “And now you’re in the pros, and you’ve got to fill a role. He’s slowly starting to figure out what his role could be and how he could impact the game in a positive way.

“He’s finding more minutes and playing well, and (he’s) a guy we’ve got to have on the court.”

But Blevins isn’t satisfied with being decent. His goal is to become a full-time NBA player, and he understands the work needed to reach that level.

Blevins knows that he’ll need to sharpen even his strongest abilities to make the next jump in his career.

“Just getting better at what I’m good at,” Blevins said. “Being the best defender on the court, outworking everybody on the court, working hard, knocking down open jumpers.

“Just finding that thing that sticks and catching somebody’s eye. Hopefully I get another opportunity up there and stay awhile.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix