Lakers Can't Afford Sophomore Slump from Ryan Kelly

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Lakers Can't Afford Sophomore Slump from Ryan Kelly
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Life is good for Ryan Kelly. The rookie stretch 4 was re-signed by the Los Angeles Lakers this summer and got hitched to his high school sweetheart, Lindsay Cowher—the daughter of former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

Kelly may be living the dream, but there’s other things that matter too—such as the fact that his position just got a lot more crowded with the likes of Julius Randle, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis.

This could result in reduced minutes for last year’s No. 48 pick out of Duke University, which could in turn lead to some sort of cataclysmic slump.

And the Lakers don’t need any slumps! Unless you’re a fan of tank talk, and let’s not make that a year-round conversation, please.

Kelly was a pleasant surprise during a decidedly unpleasant season, averaging eight points and 3.7 rebounds per game while starting in 25 out of 59 appearances. Those aren’t eye-boggling stats by any means, but he played respectable minutes for former coach Mike D’Antoni, thriving in a floor-spacing small-ball system. He also got some seasoning with the team’s minor league affiliate, the D-Fenders, averaging 22.2 points, 7.6 boards and 3.8 assists in five games played.

Ryan had some legitimate breakout moments, as well, like a career-high 26 points in a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This was also the game in which the Lakers were down to only five active players when Robert Sacre fouled out but was allowed to stay in due to an NBA no-forfeit rule.

But now the 6’11” slender shooter will be playing for a different kind of coach in Byron Scott, an old-school fundamentalist who preaches physicality and defensive responsibility.

How will that work for Kelly? Will he get buried at the end of the bench?

Maybe not. The soon-to-be sophomore is by no means an enforcer, and he certainly doesn’t rip down rebounds. But he’s intelligent, sees the floor extraordinarily well and at least makes the effort to get back and defend.

After a practice last season, D’Antoni spoke about why the second-round rookie was earning valuable minutes, per Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times: "He knows how to play, defensively and offensively. Defensively he's the first one to get to the right spot.  I think that going forward, he can keep earning more time. I'm pretty excited about him."

D’Antoni has never been regarded as a defensive sage, but he’s also no dummy. If he thought Kelly was making the effort to get to the right spots, then Kelly probably was. And D’Antoni's replacement is a guy who’s also all about effort.

To be quite honest, while Boozer may still be able to snag enough boards to look good on stat sheets, he’s not the most intensely motivated two-way player in the league, and that’s probably being generous.

Boozer may be a perennial starter, but Scott won’t hesitate to sit him if he doesn’t play D.

Entering his second NBA season Kelly will face a wall that has stopped many promising prospects—it’s the fundamental challenge of continuing to improve at an ever steeper curve as opponents learn your weaknesses and your coach asks for heavier lifting. Unless he’s looking to carve out a tenuous NBA niche as nothing but a stretch shooter, Kelly will need to keep learning, improving and gaining strength. It’s also worth noting that his .338 from behind the arc last season wasn’t particularly impressive for a guy who’s supposed to have such a pure stroke.

And yet, it’s interesting that the Lakers signed the 23-year-old frontcourt player to a two-year deal with no options. They clearly see him as more than a temp, a feeling that was reinforced by Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

When we extended a qualifying offer to Ryan in June, we fully expected him to be a part of our future. Ryan did everything we asked of him as a rookie and showed great promise and potential. After rehabbing an injury last summer, he will have the benefit of a full offseason regimen and training camp for the first time in his NBA career, and we anticipate further development as a result.

It’s not that the Lakers can’t afford a slump from Kelly in the sense that he somehow possesses a magical key to unlock their playoff hopes. It is simply that he represents a building bock to the future, and progress carries a certain sustaining energy. He is what rent-a-veterans are not—a player on the rise rather than those who are in decline.

Lakers fans all hope for the best next season—a new coach who restores pride and discipline, a healthy Steve Nash turning back the hands of time and a renewed Kobe Bryant reminding us all of his greatness. A year without this unrelenting warrior caused fissures in the franchise that many would rather not consider.

But regardless of how much we long for a return to prominence in the short term, Lakers management doesn’t want a sophomore slump from Kelly in the same way it doesn’t want a disappointing rookie season from Randle, or from Jordan Clarkson, and in the same way that everyone wants to see a still-young Jeremy Lin show that his best days are ahead.

Because this is a team that needs to build for the future—it has no other plausible choice. And Kelly can be an affordable and valuable part of the plan.

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