Management has both players signed to two-year, unguaranteed contracts. In other words, the Lakers hold the cards for a couple of bargain basement deals that are paying off right now.
To put things in perspective, it took injuries to Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Kobe Bryant and Xavier Henry to send management scrambling to find somebody to toss into the gaping hole. What they found was Marshall, a former draft bust who was lighting up the D-League.
The Lakers drafted Ryan Kelly in the second round primarily for his ability to stretch the floor with his long-range accuracy, but the team has been discouraged by the rookie's progress during the summer, according to multiple league sources. The Lakers doubt that Kelly, who missed summer league while recovering from multiple foot procedures, will be ready for the start of training camp.
Yet, here we are in January, and this unlikely duo are not only replacement starters, but beginning to look like the future. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has a couple of legitimate if unpolished gems in Kelly, a classic stretch four and Marshall, a pass-first point guard.
How well are they doing? Marshall is averaging 9.1 assists per game through 14 games which would put him in the top three of the NBA leaderboard behind Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, but for the fact that he hasn’t logged enough games this season. That will change before long. As for scoring, Marshall’s chipping in 10.1 points per game.
Kelly has started in the Lakers last two games after playing sparingly (when at all) to this point. The sharpshooting rookie from Duke collected 13 points in a loss in overtime to the Chicago Bulls on Monday, 17 points in a win against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday and 20 points off the bench in a win against the Boston Celtics on Friday.
But aside from the numbers, what’s the big picture here? The Lakers came into the season with a plan of sorts—collecting a bunch of wild card players on short contracts and minimum salaries. The general idea was to create salary space for a potential run at a major free agent player in the summer of 2013 (hint, hint: Carmelo Anthony).
In order to carry a couple of expensive players under the league’s stringent collective bargaining agreement, teams need to fill up on cheap carbs. In other words, the new building block of modern rosters—the veteran minimum salary exception.
That’s where the Lakers are right now, basically using the season as an 82-game test case. Until very recently, the most obvious bright spot was Nick “Swaggy P” Young who’s leading the team in points while coming off the bench. The Swagster’s on a minimum deal with a player option for another minimum deal next season. In other words, management better think about sweetening the pot.
Could Marshall and Kelly be integral building blocks? Absolutely, and here’s the reasons why:
Nash isn’t getting any younger and has played in only six games this season, while Farmar and Blake are both free agents. This causes a bit of a “situation” with the point guard rotation.
Also, Robert Sacre is the only other Laker big, apart from Kelly, who’s signed to a contract next season.
Stories like this aren’t actually all that rare. There have been plenty of second-round rookies that have outperformed expectations over time, as well as drafts busts that have redeemed themselves. Kelly falls into the first category while Marshall is a former 13th overall pick by the Phoenix Suns who was waived after two seasons.
Nobody’s calling these guys stars but they’re filling a void and that’s a start. There’s still plenty of room for improvement—Marshall’s footwork isn’t pretty to look at and the trajectory on his oddball set shot is pitiful. He may be making baskets now, but the better defenders in the league will catch on quick.
Per Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, the third-year point guard is well aware of the knocks on his game:
"They say you can't shoot. They say you're too slow. They say you can't defend. So I know those are things I need to be better at."
As for Kelly, he has a high basketball IQ, a nice outside stroke and good passing ability. He also demonstrates a surprisingly intuitive shot-blocking ability for someone who’s such a lousy rebounder. At 6’11” and 230 pounds, Kelly will need to add core strength as well as improve on his post moves, lateral quickness and pick-and-roll defense.
It hasn’t been a good season for the Lakers by any stretch of the imagination. Bryant’s epic comeback from Achilles surgery was sidetracked by a fractured knee, and Nash’s comeback seems to be an increasingly questionable prospect. D’Antoni’s ever-shifting rotations have snatched improbable victories against good teams and folded against the league’s bottom-dwellers.
With the 2013-14 season half over, a path to the playoffs is becoming increasingly difficult to envision. the Lakers are currently eight games out of the eighth spot. Marshall and Kelly provide rays of hope however, not so much for this season but for the rebuild that will support Bryant’s swan song for years—and beyond.