As the lowly No. 48 pick in last year’s NBA draft, Ryan Kelly outperformed expectations for the Los Angeles Lakers. A classic stretch-4 shooter, the rookie from Duke thrived in Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball system, getting extended minutes as more experienced players watched from the bench.
Now, D’Antoni’s gone and Kelly is without a guaranteed contract for next season. The Lakers have the ability to extend a qualifying offer, thus making Kelly a restricted free agent.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that they do indeed extend the offer—because why wouldn’t they? The team that lost 55 games this season has just one frontcourt player locked into a binding agreement—Robert Sacre, aka the No. 60 pick in the 2012 draft.
Let’s further stipulate that no other team bids on Kelly and that we sail into the 2014-15 season with our reedy sophomore firmly in hand and ready for his best-case and worst-case scenarios.
On first blush you might assume that the exit of D’Antoni could spell doom for Ryan Kelly. The late second-round draft pick bloomed during his rookie season in a floor-spacing, uptempo system. Yet, a coaching change could provide an unexpected silver lining—the ability to show he’s not just a one-trick pony.
The Lakers are without a coach at present and don’t appear to be in a particular hurry to sign one. Still, any number of candidates could appreciate a talented big man with excellent court vision, a deft passing touch and the ability to spread the floor.
Kelly addressed the situation per Mark Medina of The LA Daily News by saying:
I think I can play in multiple styles of offenses. Obviously Coach D’Antoni’s is more spread out and that’s what I’m going to be, more of a stretch four. But I showed the ability to handle the ball and put the ball on the floor. Teams will always need somebody who can shoot. For guys my size, I can fit into any system.
Kelly won’t ever be confused for a low-post bruiser or a rebounding savant, but he has a maturity and finesse to his game that’s unusual for a late second-round pick. He has some major supporters, as well, including Coach K, who, according to Viv Bernstein of The New York Times, referred to his Duke prodigy as “one of the best players in the country.”
Kelly started 25 of 59 games, averaged eight points in 22 minutes and scored a respectable 13 points per 36 minutes during his rookie season, per Basketball-Reference.com. A best-case scenario would have him improving on those numbers while playing for a coach who can help him to further develop his game. Getting a contract extension would be the icing on the cake.
In a worst-case scenario, none of the good stuff happens—at all.
Let’s suppose the Lakers draft a point guard—perhaps Marcus Smart—instead of a frontcourt player. Further, management is either unwilling or unable to re-sign either Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill or Chris Kaman.
Next, they hire a coach with a tough defensive mindset who likes low-post players—say, Lionel Hollins.
Lakers management isn’t able to hook any impact bigs during the offseason and instead signs Jan Vesely, who has yet to justify being taken as the No. 6 overall pick in 2011, journeyman Chris Wilcox, and Andrew Bynum, who Jim Buss believes could turn out to be the one good decision he’s made over the last three years.
Buss is wrong, once again, as the former two-time NBA champion returns with a throwback 20-rebound game that has fans on their feet, but is unable to play again for the rest of the season, citing sore knees.
Back to Kelly, who is told by Hollins to hit the gym, put on 20 pounds and get ready to do some heavy lifting down on the block.
Unfortunately, the added weight winds up causing problems with his right foot, which previously required surgery in March 2012 and April 2013.
This time, Kelly is out for several weeks with a stress fracture, returning to the lineup in late December and trying really, really hard to be that low-post guy for Hollins.
But, the stretch-4 who showed so much potential for D’Antoni during his rookie season simply isn’t who he isn’t—he winds up being used as filler in some largely forgettable trade and is thereafter waived.
What? You wanted a worst-case scenario, didn’t you?
Maybe it’s better just to imagine the glass half-full, with the contract extension and a long and fruitful career for Ryan Kelly—the second-round draft pick who winds up making good.
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