During such a dismal season, the Los Angeles Lakers are having to search for silver linings.
But Ryan Kelly is just that—a player who at the beginning of the season was questionable to even make the team, let alone make a difference. Yet, here he is—an unheralded rookie playing significant minutes and fitting right into an uptempo, floor-spacing system.
“He plays well, he’s smart. He does the things that we need, he opens the floor up and gives us a chance.”
The 6’11” forward had a career-high 26 points earlier this month in a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers and started in six of the Lakers' first eight games this month. It’s not all wine and roses, however—Kelly played just 12 minutes during a win against the Boston Celtics on Friday night and didn't make an appearance in Sunday's loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
What changed? It’s all part of the continually shifting circumstances that have defined this Lakers season. Pau Gasol is back after missing several games with a strained groin; Nick Young has also returned from injury, and Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks are getting extended looks since arriving from the Golden State Warriors for guard Steve Blake. The chain of changes led D’Antoni to move Wesley Johnson from the wing to the stretch 4 thus bumping Kelly out of his normal slot.
Are we all clear on the Lakers game of musical chairs?
As Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles points out, a seemingly minor deadline deal has the rest of the Lakers feeling out of whack. After the 29th different starting lineup and the loss on Sunday, Gasol summed up the situation: "We'll see how it goes for the next  games that we have left. The coach decides to rotate these guys and I doubt there is going to be any consistency on their minutes.”
Kelly knows all about injuries and uncertainty. The four-year man out of Duke wasn’t able to work out for teams before the 2013 draft, due to surgery on a broken right foot. In fact, it was the second surgery on the same foot within a 13-month span and contributed to his less-than-solid standing on draft night.
Still, the Lakers, sitting back in the lowly 48th slot, were happy to take a flyer on one of Mike Krzyzewski’s favorite players. Kelly, who missed 13 games of his final collegiate season with foot problems, delivered one of college basketball’s legendary returns last March, during a win against Miami.
Per Viv Bernstein of The New York Times, Coach K had this to say about Kelly’s stunning 36-point game:
We were all privileged to see one of the performances of the ages, I think, by Ryan Kelly. I’ve been saying for two months, for the last 13 games, we’ve been missing one of the best players in the country and tonight he showed that.
Miami Coach Jim Larranaga also weighed in on the performance:
“Well, I thought we prepared for Ryan Kelly, but obviously not for that Ryan Kelly. Thirty-six points on 14 attempts. That’s quite frankly ridiculous.”
And then came another injury and season-ending surgery. After the draft, Kelly’s rehab seemed excruciatingly long. By the start of training camp, he was still looking doubtful.
The Duke product was used sparingly during the preseason and logged a total of seven minutes through the first 17 regular-season games. That’s total, not average. When it came time to cut a player, management ultimately decided to on Kelly over undrafted rookie Elias Harris, banking on former's shooting talent.
December, however, wasn’t looking much better with seven more DNPs and a few brief appearances before an unexpected gift—Kelly logged 17 minutes and a modest four points during a Christmas Day loss to the Miami Heat at Staples Center. It was a beginning. The rookie logged double-digit minutes in every game in January, averaging 9.1 points.
This isn’t a guy who will clean the glass like Jordan Hill, and he doesn’t have an array of post moves like Gasol. What he does have is great court vision and passing ability, a maturity and finesse to his game that’s unusual for a second-round pick, and of course, a pure outside jumper.
It’s hard to say if Ryan Kelly will ever be a true impact player in the NBA, but his immediate future does matter for the Lakers. Kelly and Robert Sacre are the only bigs on the roster under contract for next season. Think about that—the 48th pick in 2013 and the 60th pick in 2012—that’s your future front line until management signs some reinforcements.
The Lakers have dug themselves a hole through pure bad luck and a deliberate gamble. They made the decision to essentially clear the decks for next summer’s rebuild, with an injured Kobe Bryant as the lone centerpiece.
Nobody could have predicted just how bad things would get, but everybody knew how tenuous the foundation was. And here is where the team now finds itself, with the worst record in the Western Conference, no Bryant for the forseeable future and a bunch of minimum-salary test cases who are scrambling for the opportunity to come back next season.
Plus, a coach who’s juggling all these things while heading into the last year of his own contract.
What a mess.
If nothing else, there’s a few bright spots in all of the muck, such as Kendall Marshall who emerged from the D-League to average 10.1 points and 9.6 assists over 28 games, and Nick “Swaggy P” Young who has turned his career around and will likely attract offers from other teams at the end of the season.
And then there’s Ryan Kelly who, improbably, turned 23 DNPs into something. If this crazy snakebitten season is as good as it ever gets for the sharpshooter from Duke, then so be it—at least he gave fans something unlikely to cheer about.
But what if his season transcends into something better? What did Coach K say, “one for the ages?" Lakers fans can only hope.