The Los Angeles Lakers power forward may have dropped 20 points in his team's surprising victory, but he's going to go on to make more of a name for himself as his rookie season progresses.
After the game, he told NBC Los Angeles' Shahan Ahmed, "We really want to win. That sounds cheesy, but we needed it." Apparently, he's already bought into the L.A. mentality.
Even though these Lakers are lacking in the talent department, they're refusing to give up. And Kelly is no different.
So, who is this guy? You probably know he's a first-year player out of Duke, but there's more to the 22-year-old power forward than that.
Always Been on the Radar
Ever since he burst onto the national scene as a high school standout at Ravenscroft School in North Carolina, Kelly has been highly regarded by scouts.
During his senior year (2009), the power forward was named a McDonald's All-American, and Scout.com had him ranked as a 5-star collegiate prospect. In fact, he was the No. 4 player at his position throughout the country, and you can see how many future NBA players (bolded text) were featured in the top 10 that year:
- John Henson
- Renardo Sidney
- Mouphtaou Yarou
- Ryan Kelly
- Dante Taylor
- Mason Plumlee
- Wally Judge
- Milton Jennings
- Thomas Robinson
- Royce White
He wouldn't disappoint much, though he never really lived up to the lofty expectations.
Kelly enjoyed a solid career with the Duke Blue Devils, one of the five teams that recruited him out of high school, along with Georgetown, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. He didn't play much as a freshman, but his minutes slowly increased throughout his four-year tenure under Mike Krzyzewski.
During his senior season, Kelly averaged 12.9 points per game, leaving him as the team's No. 3 scorer. Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee both beat him in that category, but Kelly was an integral part of that squad, one that was much more dangerous when he was healthy.
With Kelly in the lineup, the Blue Devils were 21-2. Without him, they were just 9-4. Even more impressively, the Kelly-boasting Devils only lost to a decent Maryland squad and a Louisville team that would go on to win the national championship after knocking them out in March Madness.
All the while, Kelly was considered a fringe NBA prospect.
DraftExpress.com had the sharpshooting big man as a second-round pick throughout his senior season in Durham, and he rose as high as No. 47.
Then he fell right in line with those expectations when the actual 2013 draft took place.
Lakers Loved Him
The Lakers selected Kelly at No. 48 in the 2013 NBA draft, and it was a bit of a surprising pick. Few thought that he'd go quite that high, but general manager Mitch Kupchak must have loved his potential to develop into a solid stretch 4.
"It's unusual to get a guy who's 6'11", 6'11.5" that has a skill like he has. So, it's a unique opportunity," Kupchak told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. "A big player that has an NBA frame that can shoot the ball, not only mid-range, but he can make some shots [deep]. I think he can become a consistent 3-point shooter in the NBA as well."
Time Warner Cable SportsNet also has video of the GM explaining that Kelly wasn't a reach. In fact, he was the top-ranked player available on the Lakers' big board, which made him a natural fit. Kupchak didn't say it, but it also helps that his pick-and-pop game made him a perfect fit for Mike D'Antoni's screen-heavy offensive systems.
Along those lines, ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) gave the Lakers a B-plus for their work in the 2013 draft, which included no players other than Kelly:
I'm not sure I'm in love with Kelly as a prospect in general. But Kelly on a Mike D'Antoni team? I can get excited about that. Kelly's ability to shoot the rock, handle it and play point power forward at times should make him a perfect fit in D'Antoni's system. I'm not predicting Kelly will be a star, but his chances for success go up dramatically under D'Antoni's watch.
Family Is Brimming Over with Sports Connections
Big-time sports aren't new to Kelly.
According to Scout.com, he's a fourth-generation college basketball player, and his father suited up for Yale. His mother was a volleyball player in college, and even that's not where the connections stop.
Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy reports that Kelly has been dating his fiance since high school, where she was another basketball star who earned All-State accolades. She didn't go on to play at Duke, but they're still together, and the current Laker proposed in May 2013, just over a month before he was drafted at No. 48:
Who is she?
Lindsay Cowher, and you might recognize that last name.
Yep, it's the daughter of legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. As DeCourcy writes, "This might seem intimidating for those who recall Cowher’s spit-fueled sideline rants through a 15-season career that peaked with a victory at Super Bowl XL in Detroit in February 2006."
But intimidating or not, it's just another sports connection for a player whose life is full of them.
Surprisingly Adequate on Defense
Kelly doesn't have much of a defensive reputation, but he's better than you might expect on that end of the court.
Throughout his career at Duke, he bought into Krzyzewski's hard-nosed, floor-slapping systems. He would sacrifice his body (Shane Battier learned it from a certain someone too) without hesitating, and his technique and hustle routinely overcame his lack of athletic tools.
In fact, Kelly had the No. 3 defensive rating on the 2012-13 Blue Devils, which was rather impressive for such a solid team.
That hasn't translated to the NBA yet, though.
The power forward has done more fouling than anything else on that end of the court, and he's still figuring out what to do against the more skilled, more athletic big men he must guard at the professional level. It also doesn't help that no one on the Lakers enjoys playing defense, and the guards routinely allow dribble penetration, which just increases Kelly's workload.
To his credit, 82games.com shows that Kelly has allowed opposing 4s to post a 16.2 PER against him, and he's been even better in sparse stretches against small forwards and centers.
Right now, that's it. He's an adequate individual defender in limited doses who struggles when he has to help out his teammates.
Kelly won't ever turn into a defensive stud, but it's not impossible for him to become a two-way asset once he gains more experience.
He Can Shoot the Lights Out
Even though he's an underrated defensive player, shooting is still his primary asset. He was drafted to be a stretch 4, and that's what he'll continue to play as throughout his NBA career.
So far, the results haven't been there.
Kelly is averaging 4.8 points per game, and he's shooting only 38.5 percent from the field and 29 percent beyond the arc. The range just hasn't been there, but you can see flashes of potential.
All of those flashes came together during the aforementioned 20-point outing against the Boston Celtics. You can see the former Duke standout's shot chart below, courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required):
It's those four green points on the perimeter that highlight Kelly's true skill set. Well, it's actually the way in which they were made.
One came in transition off a feed from Kendall Marshall. Kelly pump faked, stepped inside and hit the deep two. Another one, the deep two on the right wing, was the result of a pick-and-pop pass from Wesley Johnson, then another pump fake and step forward.
His two three-pointers were both assisted by Marshall, one on a pick-and-pop and another on a swing pass from the top of the key to the wing.
This is Kelly's game.
He isn't going to create his own looks very often, but he's going to play like a poor man's version of Ryan Anderson. He can fire away from the perimeter and knock down shots when he gets in rhythm. And as his career progresses, his range will extend, and the rhythm will be gained with even more ease.
The power forward isn't going to be a star player, but he's showing off enough tools that he's now inspiring confidence about his ability to make it in the Association. While Kelly needs to sustain his success for a lot longer before truly proving himself, the Lakers may have found themselves yet another solid role player.