To say Ryan Kelly had a disappointing sophomore season would be an understatement. After becoming a sign of the Los Angeles Lakers front office's recent skill for finding talent late in the draft toward the end of his rookie season, the 48th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft struggled mightily in his second year in the league, averaging 6.4 points on 33.7 percent shooting.
The main reason for this? Kelly was primarily used out of position at small forward by head coach Byron Scott in an effort to find minutes for the second-year big man. That did not go well, with Kelly lacking the quickness to blow by wings or the girth to punish them in the post. Mix that in with his inability to stay in front small forwards on the defensive end and it is easy to see why Scott told reporters on Wednesday, "you probably will never see him at three again."
Playing at his natural position of power forward this preseason, Kelly has been visibly more comfortable and effective putting the ball on the floor and attacking his defender. This aspect of Kelly's game was most memorably displayed on his game winning dunk against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night:
In that play Omari Johnson, seemingly worried about the prospect of Kelly getting a wide-open jumper or handing the ball off to Jabari Brown, closed out to hard and left himself off balance, leaving the Blazers defense parted like the Red Sea with a path directly to the paint. Kelly recognized this and attacked, ending the game and quite possibly Johnson's chances of making the Portland roster. Perhaps that's why Johnson is the only player not pictured on the team's official roster page:
Kelly's game winner after blowing past Omari Johnson was so bad the Blazers don't have his picture on their roster: pic.twitter.com/QUJFdYZgjd— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) October 21, 2015
This was not an isolated incident this preseason, with defenders either respecting Kelly's shot enough to stick closer to him and risk a blow by or letting him fire from range. On the left is Kelly's 2015 preseason shot chart, and on the right is from his '14-15 regular season:
At first it looks bad that his field goal percentage around the basket has actually decreased, but the number to look at is how much more of his shots have been distributed in that area (57.1% of Kelly's attempts as compared to 26.2% last season). If Kelly can start to find some rhythm around the basket, his pump-and-drive game could become an effective weapon off the bench.
The other thing that jumps out from these charts is Kelly's three-point shooting. One of the criticisms of Kelly the last two seasons was that he was a stretch four who couldn't really shoot, averaging 33.8 perccent and 33.6 percent from three in his rookie and sophomore seasons, respectively. Those are below league average on three-pointers, but this preseason Kelly has shot a scorching 50 percent from distance. Small sample size caveats abound, but if he can continue to knock down those perimeter looks, it will allow him to leverage that attention into drives to the basket.
Kelly's handle will never be mistaken for Julius Randle's, and his improved shooting needs a larger sample size to determine whether or not it is sustainable, but this preseason he has at the very least shown enough to promise to warrant sticking around for another season as the Lakers' continue to evaluate whether or not he can be a helpful role player going forward. Scott playing him at his actual position can only help his case.