Ryan Kelly's journey to the NBA was not an easy one, but thanks to five games in the D-League and some opportune timing, the former Blue Devil now starts for the NBA's most famous team.
In his senior season at Duke, Kelly averaged 12.9 points and 5.3 rebounds, all while dealing with a foot injury that would hamper him throughout the season. Following the team’s loss to Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, Kelly opted for surgery on the foot to prevent any future problems and hoped to be back by the time the NBA training camps rolled around.
“After my senior season ended, I had surgery on my foot and that put me out for a while, through all of the pre-draft training,” Kelly said. “I was invited and got to go to the [NBA Combine], but was not able to do anything other than the measurements. Then I was drafted by the Lakers.”
Kelly was taken with the 48th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, making him the second Blue Devil to be drafted behind Mason Plumlee, who went at the No. 22 slot to the Brooklyn Nets.
Now that he was under contract—a non-guaranteed deal—Kelly’s rehab was now in the hands of the Lakers. And while both had hoped to have him game ready by the time the preseason began, the rehab took longer than expected.
When training camp rolled around Sept. 28, Kelly was still not completely ready to play—his rehab lasted partially through camp. The Lakers had opted to bring him along slowly, and while this gave him a better opportunity to prevent any future complications in the foot, it also meant Kelly’s spot on the team could be in jeopardy if he could not earn his place on the floor.
“[Rehab] took a while,” he said. “When I did get to come back, it was about a week into training camp, so I was already a little bit behind. Being an unguaranteed guy, I had a short amount of time to earn my spot on the team.”
But Kelly managed to do just that, and the Lakers kept him on as they began the preseason, in which he averaged 5.0 points per game in 33 minutes of action.
When the regular season finally kicked off, Kelly ceased to see the floor. Through the first 13 games, he spent a total of seven minutes on the court. It was clear at that point that Kelly’s extended rehab and limited on-court presence in the off-season had hampered his ability to acclimate to the fast-paced style of the NBA. What he needed most was playing time, and a lot of it, which was something the Lakers could not provide at the moment.
Seeing that Kelly needed to log some minutes and get accustomed to the NBA game, the Lakers made the call to send him to their D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders. Kelly had been with the D-Fenders earlier in the season, but had never played in a game for the D-League affiliate.
“I wasn’t really in a position where I was going to earn much playing time” Kelly said. “Not only that, but I hadn’t been able to really play in any games since the end of my senior season and my foot injury. So the Lakers decided it was a good opportunity for me to be sent down to the D-League to just get some game time under my belt.”
Whereas many players view the move from the NBA to the D-League as a demotion, Kelly saw it as an opportunity. It was a chance to play high-volume minutes and show the Lakers and himself that he was capable of playing at the highest level. And though the negative stigma surrounding the D-League may still be there for veterans who just want to play at the top level, young players like Kelly can thrive in the league and create opportunities for themselves to play in the NBA in the future.“The dream for every basketball player is to play in the NBA. I think for most players, it’s somewhat of a disappointment if you’re not there,” Kelly said. “ I always look at being able to play the game of basketball as an opportunity. Knowing that there’s always going to be someone there that’s watching you, trying to figure out what kind of player you are, and the D-League gives you an opportunity to be seen by all 30 NBA teams every time you step on the floor."
Through five games with the D-Fenders, Kelly was an offensive machine. He averaged 25.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 39.8 minutes per game.
While the numbers themselves were impressive, it was the chance to just be back out on the court and playing more basketball than he had in the past eight months that would be the biggest takeaway from Kelly’s stint in the D-League.
“The D-League’s even faster than the NBA,” he said. “Guys get shots up a lot faster and a lot earlier in the shot clock, so there’s a lot of running up and down. You really have to be in great shape and that was another great opportunity for me in that five-game stretch to get in game shape. I played more minutes in those games than I ever would’ve in an NBA game.”
Following his success with the D-Fenders, Kelly was brought back up to the Lakers in early December and though his playing time increased, he still saw limited minutes. But when Kobe Bryant injured his knee, Kelly and the rest of the Lakers knew they needed to step up and provide the offense that Bryant normally would.
Kelly’s NBA success would start Christmas Day in a 95-101 loss to the Miami Heat in which he only scored four points but registered double-digit minutes for the first time in his career. The signs were there for an uptick in minutes, as the forward had logged nine in the Lakers' previous game. From there on out, Kelly has played more than 10 minutes in every game, eventually leading to his breakout performance Jan. 17. against the Celtics in which he scored 20 points—including two late free throws to ice the game—grabbed four rebounds and knocked down a pair of triples. In his past 12 games, Kelly has averaged 12.3 points on 46.1 percent shooting with 4.3 rebounds per game.
With his new-found starting position with the Lakers, Kelly is making sure not to become complacent. He knows his opportunity is special but he has refused to give into the notion that it's great just to be in the NBA. For Kelly, the past month and a half have been the start to what he hopes is a long career.
“The way the NBA game is, you always have a game the next night," Kelly said. "It’s easy for me to step back and say this is a great honor and a great opportunity and I want to take advantage of it. I try not to think about all the great players because I’ve got to worry about what I’ve got to do to prove myself in this league. Prove to everyone, not just the Lakers, that I’m here to stay.”