Jordan Clarkson and Ryan Kelly will be forever connected in recollections of the most memorable moments of the 2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers season. Why, you ask? Because of their last names leading to endless Kelly-Clarkson jokes and memes. But a bunch of bad photoshop jobs and perfectly timed screenshots are not all the pairing has in common.
Before he broke out after being moved into the starting lineup, the conversation surrounding Clarkson centered on the necessity that he and the Lakers' other rookies, Tarik Black and Jabari Brown, get minutes and develop this season because they may be around as future parts of the team. These rally cries for young, potential future assets was reminiscent of the discourse surrounding Ryan Kelly during the 2013-14 season.
This is not to compare the two, because Clarkson is now and will be the better player of the pair. But how did Kelly go from being a promising part of the Lakers future to one of the most maligned and disappointing aspects of the Lakers present? To put it simply, his situation changed in three major ways: the Lakers changed coaches, the players around him changed as part of the roster churn of the last three seasons, and then the new coach changed Kelly's primary position because of these new players.
When the Lakers replaced Mike D'Antoni with Byron "three-pointers don't win championships" Scott, Ryan Kelly being adversely affected seemed like a pretty likely outcome. Once Scott made it clear from his opening press conference that he wanted to establish himself as a sort of anti-D'Antoni, the prospects for a prototypical stretch-four like Kelly seemed grim. This added to another problem for Kelly, a month earlier, with the drafting of Julius Randle and the Lakers' signings in free agency. The roster around him had improved at his natural position.
The frontcourt rotation on the 2013-14 Lakers looked like this:
Pau Gasol (played in 60 games)
Jordan Hill (72)
Robert Sacre (65)
Shawne Williams (36)
Chris Kaman (39)
272 total games played
Here are the guys Kelly was competing with for minutes this season:
Jordan Hill (70)
Carlos Boozer (71)
Ed Davis (79)
Robert Sacre (67)
Tarik Black (38)
325 total games played
This neglects to mention Julius Randle had he been healthy, although the Lakers may have passed on Black in that instance. Regardless, the '14-'15 Lakers were loaded with talent in the frontcourt compared to the '13-'14 outfit, making for a situation much less conducive to Kelly getting minutes. A hamstring injury early in the year made things worse for Kelly, creating a situation where even when he returned to the lineup, Ryan was in a squeeze for minutes. So the Lakers were "forced" to shoehorn him in for small forward minutes. "His natural position is a four, but I want to experiment with things", said Scott. Even Kelly's mother did not approve.
Scott's "experiment" went poorly, something that can be seen when looking at Ryan's year-to-year shooting heat maps from Basketball Reference:
The biggest reason for Kelly's decline from the holiday themed green and red of his rookie year to a sophomoric blue period was the decline of his jumper. The former Duke Blue Devil went from shooting 35 percent on jumpers his rookie year to 29 percent during his sophomore campaign. When playing at small forward, the wings that were checking Kelly were able to stay in front of him without fear off being beaten off the dribble, and thus were able to contest his shots well.
That lack of fear of a blow by leads to the other large factor in Kelly's ineffectiveness while playing on the wing: at 6'11" without much of a post up game to speak of, Kelly's ability to punish teams for sticking a smaller player on him is very limited. One of his greatest utilities last year was his ability to either hit shots when slower big men played too far off of him, or pump fake them out of position and use his prodigious handles (for a tall, lanky, and awkward moving big man at least) to get into the lane and finish.
The lack of these types of plays is evident not only from watching him play or the heat maps above, but also by Kelly's decline from shooting 47.6 percent on two-pointers his rookie season to 33.7 percent in his second go round. Playing at small forward negates most of Kelly's offensive advantages, not to mention the defensive problems it presents, nearly leaving Kelly in the hospital with 2 broken ankles on a regular basis:
Change is a part of life. What is sometimes forgotten when repeating that oft-cited wisdom is that not all change is for the better. In the case of Ryan Kelly's 2014-15 season, change was mostly negative. Kelly went from promising future role player to a Shaqtin a Fool All-Star candidate in the span of a year. Kelly will still probably see limited minutes next season with the return of Randle, the possible addition of one of the 2015 Draft's bevy of frontcourt prospects, or a long shot free agent addition like LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love. If the player from Kelly's rookie year is real and can be built into a future role player, then maybe his sophomore campaign can be forgotten. Or to paraphrase a different R. Kelly:
Remix to ignition,
Ryan Kelly edition,
I believe this big man can fly if he plays his natural position.
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