With the 48th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers selected wiry Duke stretch forward Ryan Kelly. Like most second round picks, little was expected of the former Blue Devil in his rookie year except to wave some towels from the bench, refine his suit game and get beat up by Pau Gasol in practice. However, as the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers fell to a massive wave of injuries, Kelly found himself pressed into service before he was truly ready for prime time. The power forward ended up playing 59 games for the 27-55 Show, including a staggering 25 starts as Gasol and Jordan Hill sat out with injuries and Chris Kaman took some cat naps.
But the real surprise? Ryan Kelly wasn't terrible. As I detailed in a piece towards the end of the season, the big man was contributing far more than most players at his draft slot should have, especially in his first year. While his defense left much to be desired, to put it lightly, there was a lot to like about the 22-year-old's game. Kelly was known as a three-point sniper throughout his college career and though that didn't necessarily translate to his rookie season, he shot .338 on 142 attempts last year, which was about league average. Unlike many of his future teammates, Kelly's shot is fluid with a quick trigger, leaving the hope that he'll be primed for an improvement going forward. Moreover, the big man had a ton of other surprisingly developed skills: solid ball handling, good weak side shot blocking, a nice mid-range stroke and an ability to fight through traffic and finish at the rim.
This isn't to say he wasn't without his flaws. His defense, especially in the post, was particularly...lacking, and his rebounding and passing weren't anything special. However, even through his blemishes, it was apparent to me that he had real potential to be a on-court contributor, especially in his second season with the departure of Pau Gasol and the team's glaring need for three-point shooting. Well, at some point, anyway. Maybe.
Kelly won't be able to help the Lakers anytime soon. He's played just 25 minutes this season with several hamstring injuries, suffering another one just a couple of plays into his return on Sunday night versus the Golden State Warriors. An MRI on Monday revealed a hamstring tear which will sideline him for at least six weeks, a devastating blow to an already crippled Lakers squad. The tricky nature of those specific type of maladies lead me to suspect that this issue could completely derail his sophmore year, even if his return has been projected within a couple of months. The timing, unfortunately, couldn't be worse.
In 11 games this season, the Lakers have hit just 55 three-pointers; 22 of those were from Kobe Bryant, whose three-point percentage is hovering around 30% for the year, and 2 came from the returning Nick Young last night, showing that long range touch the Lakers have sorely needed. The Lakers rank 27th in three-pointers made, an improvement in which could morph a mediocre scoring attack to an above average one.
The Lakers rank right in the middle of the pack in scoring and offensive efficiency, a figure that's only been aided by the fact that most of their nine losses thus far have been blowouts where the finish has been determined by midway through the third quarter. While I put a lot of credence in the numbers, there's no doubt that the Lakers's offensive performance has been buoyed by playing against the third units of teams like the Warriors, Spurs and Pelicans for entire quarters in which 15-point games can quickly become single-digit farces.
LA desperately needs Kelly's shooting to compete night to night. In the modern NBA, floor spacing is king. Without an ability to stretch the half court, the Lakers have been entirely dependent on Kobe Bryant creating offense over triple teams and Jeremy Lin trying to force action with three guys waiting for him at the rim. From there, it's been a domino effect on both sides of the floor. Kobe's inability or unwillingness to pass to incompetent three-point shooters like Ronnie Price, Wesley Johnson and Wayne Ellington has led to a ton of empty possessions, especially at the end of games. Regardless of whether you believe in this narrative or not, the anecdotal evidence from NBA players is that without even a moderate distribution of shot attempts on the offensive end, guys are much less apt to play hard on defense. In other words, dudes aren't getting shots and thus, don't feel like defending.
The other hope was that Kelly would have been able to add a solid mid-range shooter to an offense that (quizzically) puts an emphasis on those shots. Jordan Hill and Carlos Boozer are taking a large portion of these jumpers, with Hill hitting just .268 FG% from 16 feet out, and Booze slightly better at .333 FG%. With 44 shots last season, Kelly hit 20 of them (45.5%), which is a small sample size to be sure, but certainly more encouraging numbers than what we've seen thus far from his contemporaries in purple and gold.
On the other side of the ball, the hope was that over the summer, Kelly put in some work on getting stronger and being able to play some semblance of defense in the post. Last year, the big man was absolute dog meat against any guy with any modicum of a post game, getting tossed around like the Brooklyn Brawler on an episode of WWF Superstars. Any improvement on that end, coupled with his shot blocking abilities and scheme-breaking shooting could have been a major help to a team without much of either.
With only 25 minutes of court time thus far this year, it's almost impossible to tell whether or not there has been any improvement whatsoever in Kelly's game. It very well could have been the case that he didn't improve as a shooter, rebounder or defender or perhaps even regressed. However, like so many facets of this almost already lost season of Lakers basketball, we just may never know.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino