Numbers or words can’t measure the impact Ryan Kelly has for Duke, columnist Chris Cusack writes.
Numbers or words can’t measure the impact Ryan Kelly has for Duke, columnist Chris Cusack writes.

“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting....” —The (White) Raven, Edgar Allen Poe

From the Toepocalypse to the White Raven’s clipped wing, it’s beginning to look like Duke sold its soul (or feet) for six weeks of elite play from Brian Zoubek in 2010.

Since then, the Blue Devils haven’t been able to catch a break, losing Kyrie Irving then Ryan Kelly to indeterminate injuries each time the team looks like a national title contender.

Although the team has been tightlipped about the severity of Kelly’s injury, as it was with Irving’s, it seems unlikely to expect the senior to be back in the near future. There’s no doubt that Kelly’s absence will be a blow to Duke’s play moving forward, but just how big a loss is it?

It’s hard to say, in part because Kelly is so different from the rest of the roster. There isn’t another 6-foot-11 stretch power forward to seamlessly insert into the lineup, and the Blue Devils will once again be left to make a fundamental change in style later in the season than they’d like. Losing Kelly is certainly not Toepocalypse Now, but it certainly will impact the Blue Devils more than standard statistics indicate.

Kelly comes from the Shane Battier school of understated excellence, the type of player for whom advanced statistics were invented and still cannot fully explain. His traditional line of 13.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game this season hardly does his impact justice—as anyone who watched Duke limp through last season’s ACC and NCAA Tournaments without him can attest.

Obviously, relying on numbers alone is an insufficient way to measure a basketball player’s impact. Basketball is not baseball, and statistics are not yet good enough to totally isolate a certain player. This is no more apparent than on statistician Ken Pomeroy’s website, where the hyper-athletic (a term reserved for anyone who pulls off an in-game 360 dunk) Rodney Williams is listed as the player most similar to Kelly.

Kelly’s importance is difficult to both quantify and qualify, and even Mike Krzyzewski struggled to put his impact into words after Saturday’s loss to N.C. State.

“You’re different,” Krzyzewski said of his team without Kelly. “You’re just different.”

Much of that difference comes on the offensive end, where Duke no longer has a power forward who can drag his defender out to the perimeter. Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston combined to score 18 points on 9-of-14 shooting in Saturday’s loss to N.C. State, but nearly all of those point came from within 10 feet of the basket. Having another player in the lane on offense limits Mason Plumlee—who has thrived in the post in large part because of the space created by Kelly—since it becomes easier to slide a defender over for a double team.

Duke also loses one of the hottest 3-point shooters in the country—Kelly has hit 67.7 percent of his treys since the team’s trip to the Bahamas. He is a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor on every possession even without the ball, helping keep space around the perimeter to keep Plumlee out of double teams.

The biggest issue for the Blue Devils, though, will be replacing Kelly’s defense. One of the best post defenders in the country, his opponents score just over .5 points per possession against him on 22 percent shooting, the third-best mark nationwide of players at all positions. Hairston, who on Saturday called Kelly’s defense “special,” and Jefferson could not contain Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie. The pair finished with a combined 41 points and 24 rebounds in the upset.

That problem will not go away with time, but the Blue Devils’ struggles against Howell and Leslie are hardly an indicator of major issues: The two are the best frontcourt pair in the ACC with Kelly sidelined. Looming matchups with Miami’s Kenny Kadji and Julian Gamble, followed by Maryland’s Alex Len and James Padgett, though, mean Hairston and Jefferson will be put in a tough spot, with little time to adjust to their new, expanded roles just as conference play begins to heat up.