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GSW men’s basketball program signs former Duke football star, high school hoops standout

Austin Kelly, who graduated early from Duke after starring on the football team for four years — finishing 11th all-time with 129 catches — has one year of eligibility left, and he’s using it to play hoops at GSW. (Duke University/Special to The Herald)

Austin Kelly, who graduated early from Duke after starring on the football team for four years — finishing 11th all-time with 129 catches — has one year of eligibility left, and he’s using it to play hoops at GSW. (Duke University/Special to The Herald)

AMERICUS — There’s about to be a new big man on campus at Georgia Southwestern State University.

Former South Cobb High School star and Mableton, Ga., native Austin Kelly, who had offers from major Division I colleges out of high school to play either football or basketball — but chose Duke University, where he starred on the gridiron — is coming to Americus to play basketball next season for coach Mike Leeder’s rising Division II program.

“I’m excited, man. Real excited,” Kelly said Friday when reached on his cell phone by The Herald. “I chose football out of high school at Duke because of academics and because I thought I had a shot to make it to the NFL, but basketball’s always been my first love. I can’t wait to get to Americus and join the team.”

After four years playing for the Blue Devils at receiver — tallying 129 receptions, good for 11th all-time in school history — Kelly finished his bachelor’s degree in sociology early and had a year of college eligibility left. He attended several pro-day workouts for the NFL after the 2010 season, but he wasn’t offered a contract. So he took most of 2011 off as he contemplated his next move, all the while considering returning to college to earn his master’s degree and playing one season on the hardwood.

That’s where Leeder came in.

“I know his high school coach (Daniel Bolles) well, and I knew Austin was interested in playing basketball, so we waited to see what happened with football,” Leeder said Friday. “We stayed in contact, and when football didn’t work out, coach Bolles called me and said, ‘He’s ready to come to Americus if you still want him.’ And we did.”

Kelly, a combo guard on the basketball court who’s 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, was a four-year letterman at South Cobb and started his final three seasons, leading his team to the state playoffs each year. When he graduated from high school, the WR/QB had an array of offers to play football (Duke, Indiana, Georgia Tech and Virginia) or basketball (Georgia State, UMass, Virginia Tech). But he said Friday that even though he chose football, he never stopped thinking about, or playing, hoops — thanks to his girlfriend, former Duke star Karima Christmas, who now plays for the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock.

“We’d play all the time,” he said. “Basketball never left me.”

During his senior season on the gridiron, Kelly hauled in 47 receptions (which ranked eighth in the ACC) for 486 yards and four TDs. NCAA student-athletes have 10 semesters of eligibility, and since Kelly did not redshirt or sit out a year, he finished his football career in eight semesters, which meant he could still play any sport but football to use up his final two semesters of eligibility.

“He was a high-level basketball recruit out of high school, and we knew about him back then,” Leeder said. “When coach Bolles called me and explained the situation, we brought him down, worked him out and really liked what we saw. He’s incredibly competitive, he’s athletic and he’s a tremendous defender. He has the chance to be one of the best guards in our league.”

Kelly said he doesn’t feel rusty, either.

He not only stayed in tip-top shape the past year while he tried to make an NFL roster, but he’s been re-immersing himself in the game of basketball.

“I feel sharp. I can still handle the ball. I can be aggressive and score. I can get my teammates involved. And I know coach Leeder wants me to be his best defender,” he said. “I still feel like I bring a lot to the table.”

At South Cobb, Kelly averaged 15.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and four assists per game as a senior to earn All-Region honors. He even scored 24 points in the Class AAAAA state tournament while being guarded by current Philadelphia 76er Lou Williams.

And GSW could use his help.

The Hurricanes, who won the Peach Belt Conference’s Western Division two years ago for the first time since joining Division II in 2006, finished 12-14 overall and 3-14 in PBC play last season after losing All-American Phillip Brown to a knee injury midseason. Brown has since graduated, paving the way for a new star on GSW’s campus.

“Austin will be able to play both guard spots for us,” Leeder said. “And I think his big-game experience in football will translate well to the basketball floor.”

Kelly, meanwhile, is counting down the days until his arrival in Americus.

“August 10th. I move in, start working out. I can’t wait, man,” Kelly said. “Honestly, I’m a little nervous, but once I get down there, meet the guys and shake the nerves, I don’t doubt I’ll be able to settle right back in.”