You wouldn't think being the 48th pick in one of the weakest drafts in recent memory would bode well for anyone. In fact, in the last four drafts, only 1/4 of the players drafted 48th or lower have actually stuck in the league, an illustrious list of talent that includes the likes of Isaiah Thomas, E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and our own Robert Sacre. For the most part, teams aren't mining talent out of the second half of the second round, but rather taking a shot on four-year college players and international youngsters with unpronounceable names and little chance of ever coming over to the States.
In the former forward from Duke University, the Lakers seemed to have found something. After a slow start to begin the season, which included missing almost the entirety of training camp because of recovery from foot surgery, Kelly has found his way into Mike D'Antoni's regular rotation over veterans Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman. The forward has put up some solid statistics during his rookie campaign, emerging from the pack with 7.6 ppg, on .433 FG% and .366 3P% with 3.3 rpg to boot.
But what's been most impressive about Kelly has been just how comfortable he's looked amongst competition moving at NBA speed. The 6'10" forward has shown impressive chops that belie his rookie standing, including a great handle on ball considering his size, solid shot blocking prowess in the paint and a surprisingly versatile offensive repertoire. Let's examine:
Kelly's statistics won't really tell the story here. He's averaging just 0.7 turnovers per game, but to 1.3 assists--he's not much of a passer or playmaker on this team, that's just not his function. Looking deeper, he's got a below average turnover percentage at over 9%, but considering he's got one of the lowest usage rates on the team, I'm not sure just how many times he's even touching the ball.
This is just one of those rare occasions where the eye test is the more powerful metric here. Kelly's ball handling is far more advanced than his NBA experience would suggest, as he can consistently put the ball on the floor off the dribble and rarely looks out of control going to the hoop on drive or pick and roll plays. It's surprising that, despite his length and college positioning, he's so comfortable handling the rock. If you're not getting the subtext here, Kelly looks like a lanky, clumsy white guy. But he's not.
As a jump shooting forward with a slight build, sometimes it's easy to forget just how gigantic Kelly is. Standing a genuine 6'10" with a 6'11" wingspan, his length and reach rank amongst the longest on the team. In his short time with the Lakers, Kelly has shown a remarkable shot blocking prowess. He's averaging just 0.8 blocks per game, but his per 36 minute statistics stretch it out to 1.4. This is all tempered by the fact that he's often chasing around perimeter players on switches and help defense and isn't at all the first line of defense at the rim.
I'm not sure how much more Kelly will develop as a shot blocker as his development projects him as a Rashard Lewis or Ryan Anderson stretch four who is going to spend most of his time on the perimeter. However, the early returns on his ability to protect the rim, usually on the weak side, really underlines a solid level of athleticism and quickness.
Mid-range jump shooting
Kelly's early bread and butter play has been the shot fake off the three point line into a mid-range jumper, a movement that looks as smooth and natural as a Steve Nash scoop shot. He's shooting just about 44% from 16 feet out, a remarkable percentage from that point on the floor. Combine this with his reputation as an above average three-point shooter, and opponents are regularly biting on his head fake which is quite often giving Kelly wide-open looks. He'll need to become an even sharper three-point shooter to continue these type of looks, which I have confidence he'll be able to do. As the NBA trends away from that shot in general, it's refreshing to see Kelly come into the NBA with a prepackaged skill set that's going to differentiate him from the pack.
Finishing off the dribble
More than anything, this is what really makes Kelly a potential true NBA contributor. Combined with his already superb mid-range shooting and ball handling, Ryan's ability to drive and finish could make him a difficult one-on-one matchup in the future. He's shown flashes of excellent finishing skills at the rim, twisting in the air and yet being able to deliver the ball to the hoop. It's a very advanced skill for such a young player to be able to control his body near the rim, especially considering his size and length.
For a comparison, look at Xavier Henry--the four-year NBA veteran has an extraordinary ability to cut through traffic in the lane, but has no idea what to do when he gets to the rim. He'll have to greatly improve on this part of his game if he ever wants to be more than a bit player on a bad team. In Ryan Kelly's case, he already doesn't have to worry about it.
It's hard not to believe that Kelly's four years at Duke under coach Mike Krzyzewski didn't have anything to do with his advanced development in his rookie season. At the core, Ryan is simply good at the fundamentals of the game: dribble the ball, be careful with your passes, hit mid-range jump shots and maintain body control even at full speed. Having not watched Kelly throughout his career at Duke, perhaps for fear that I would retch at every sight of those Blue Devils, I can't speak to just how sharply his skills were honed there from day one to graduation. However, it's remarkable just how NBA-ready he was considering the spot he was drafted in and four years in college.
This isn't to say that Kelly doesn't have his limitations. He's not a very good rebounder, routinely getting pushed around in the lane and lacking the jumping ability to grab balls that he should get to considering his reach. His defense is decent at best, and at times he's just a sieve on the perimeter. Kelly's lateral movement isn't particularly sharp and his overall footspeed isn't elite, which means that if he's switched onto a swift wingman he'll be eating rubber dust and watching his man blow past. He's not much better in the paint, getting battered by bigger, stronger forwards who can bully him around the key.
Still, some of these cracks in his game are just things that will improve as he spends more time at the NBA-level with professional trainers, dietitians and the benefit of watching guys like Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash train. As he gets stronger, especially in his base, Kelly should be able to be a better post defender and hopefully rebounder. Adding this to his already polished ball handling, mid-range shooting and willingness to put the ball on the floor, there's a real possibility that Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak got themselves a real steal towards the end of the draft.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino