The Lakers used their lone selection in the draft to select Duke’s Ryan Kelly. The six foot, eleven inch big man was rated as a mid to late 2nd rounder by most talent evaluators, though Kevin Pelton of ESPN did have him ranked as the 38th best prospect in the draft.
Putting aside those things, it’s best to get this out of the way early: we shouldn’t expect much from the 48th pick in the draft regardless of his name recognition, his pedigree, or his skill set. The draft often symbolizes hope in that any player selected is fresh and new, representing a move towards the future. Even for a later drafted player, there’s a desire to think of what’s possible with a tilt towards the positive rather than simply understanding that many players drafted this late don’t pan out.
As Lakers’ fans, we should know this better than most. Over the past several years the Lakers have used second round picks on Derrick Caracter, Devin Ebanks, Andrew Goudelock, Darius Morris, Darius Johnson-Odom, and Robert Sacre. Of those picks, only Sacre remains actively on the team as he was tendered with his qualifying offer before Thursday’s draft. Of the others, Caracter was long ago waived and hasn’t since made it back to the big leagues, Johnson-Odom was waived last season and finished the year in Europe, while Ebanks, Goudelock, and Morris all spent most of last year on the bench or in the D-League and weren’t made qualifying offers for next season.
All of these players, at one point or time, offered promise as potential contributors. And all of them, save Sacre, are no longer on the team. Even Sacre, who can be a useful 4th or 5th big man in the NBA, is a low ceiling player who, if he’s seeing significant time, likely isn’t positively impacting the team in a lot of ways.
With all those qualifiers out of the way, Kelly can still be a useful player in the NBA and the hope is that his relatively high skill in certain areas of the game do, in fact, translate well to this level and make him someone who can contribute quickly and for a sustained period of time.
What are those skills? Well, Kelly is a shooter and he brings that skill to the table in a big man’s body. As mentioned at the top and when we briefly touched on the pick yesterday, Kelly is nearly seven feet tall (in shoes) and shot 42% on three pointers in his senior season at Duke. These two traits, when combined, represent a template for a very useful type of player in today’s NBA, and specifically in the types of sets the Lakers ran last season.
If the past several years have taught us anything it’s that the NBA has become more and more perimeter oriented. That doesn’t only mean that the game is dominated by wing players (though that would be true as LeBron, Durant, and other superstars prove), but also that the ability to shoot the ball and create space on offense to open up the lane and make defenses pay for helping near the rim are more important than ever.
Last season, the Lakers tried to generate this spacing by giving players the green light to shoot when open. That confidence inspired some average to above average shooting numbers from players via increased repetition and confidence, but as the Spurs series showed, that did not translate to respect in how the defense played the Lakers. What a player like Kelly can (hopefully) do, is provide the type of shooting that either A). makes defenses pay for sagging into the paint to help in the post, when big men dive to the paint in the P&R, and when penetration occurs and/or B). keeps defenses honest by having them not help as much when the Lakers are going to these actions.
Considering the offensive sets the Lakers like to run, a player like Kelly instantly becomes someone who can see playing time should he perform his best skills to his best ability. This is even more true based off the position he plays. The two dominant types of sets the Lakers ran last season were the spread P&R and actions out of the HORNS formations. In both of these sets, the second big man plays a crucial role as both a floor spacer and as a decision maker as a release valve when the first options aren’t there.
For example, when the Lakers run the spread P&R, the PF is typically the big man who circles back towards the top of the key area from the weak side as the ball handler (looking to turn the corner) and the Center (diving to the cup) both fulfill their roles. Most defensive schemes call for the weak side big to step into the lane to help on the dive (either as the top defender bumping the roll man or as the back line man protecting the rim). When that defender helps, it’s the PF who is often open near the top of the key or behind the arc. One only needs to look at Pau Gasol, Earl Clark, or Antawn Jamison’s shot charts to see what type of field goal attempts playing this spot leads to.
Meanwhile, in HORNS both big men are stationed at the elbows of the lane and are used as both screeners and decision makers while the rest of the play develops. Usually, it’s the PF who receives the first pass while the C works off the ball as both a screener and then a secondary option ducking into the paint looking for an entry pass in a high-low set.
Kelly, based off his skill set, can play the PF role in both these sets with relative ease. His ability to stretch the floor instantly translates to what the Lakers want to do in the P&R as he’s the guy who can hit shots both circling back to the top of the key or standing stationary on the weak side wing as the defense collapses to the paint. Meanwhile, in HORNS sets, Kelly has a high enough basketball IQ to play as a passer from the elbow. And, if defenses collapse off him in order to take away passing angles or to clog the paint so the various duck-ins and curls into the lane are taken away, Kelly’s shooting ability is again a weapon as he can simply take (and make) that open mid-range jumper when his man backs off.
Of course, basketball is a two-way game and though Kelly is a nice fit on offense his limitations as an athlete will likely give him issues both defensively and when rebounding his position. Big men in the today’s NBA are asked to not only protect the rim defensively, but must also show hedge and recover skills in the P&R and be able to go from the paint to the three point line to close out on shooters (while also sliding with them if they put the ball on the floor attacking that close out). Kelly, for all intents and purposes, isn’t a good enough athlete to accomplish these things consistently. He’s a hard worker and is smart enough to understand positioning, angles, and timing, but his physical limitations will likely hamper his ability to ever be anything more than “average” on that end of the floor. Maybe, with the right personnel flanking him (cough, Dwight Howard, cough) average will be enough, but that remains to be seen.
Ultimately, however, Kelly was picked for his offense. And, based off his size, skills and smarts, he should be able to find a niche in this league as a stretch big man. The Lakers are a team who, last year, showed they lacked players who could knock down a shot and, based off injuries also had issues with depth on their front line. Kelly checks off both of these boxes which, again, can’t be downplayed.
The NBA is evolving into a league where offenses want every player on the floor to be able to threaten the defense in a way that creates space for others to generate open, makable shots. Whether that’s a post player or a penetrating wing drawing defenders to the paint so outside shooters get open looks or marksmen from behind the arc who keep defenders honest enough that those post players and wing penetrators have the room they need in getting to and finishing in the paint. Kelly is a player who can do the latter.
Whether the rest of his game is NBA ready enough that he’s able to see the floor to impact the game with this skill remains to be seen