By: Tom Ballato
When you think of some of the greatest performances in Duke history, Ryan Kelly’s game in his return from injury is at the top of the list.
Kelly played high school basketball at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina. He became a McDonald’s All-American and was named North Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year in 2009.
He committed to play for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. “Honestly, it was just a gut feeling. As a kid, coach K was coaching the Olympic team in China, and hearing from him as he is coaching these great players was pretty cool. One thing I always go back to was when I was being recruited, and I made all my visits, I always made it a point to play pickup with the team. When I went to Duke and played pick up, it was if I was already on the team. I was coming for somebody’s minutes.”
That was the gut feeling of it all. Kelly chose Duke over North Carolina, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and Georgetown.
In his freshman year, he appeared in 35 games in a reserve role in 2010. Duke went on to win the National Championship that year, and Kelly gained valuable experience playing behind Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas, and Brian Zoubek, who were all upperclassmen.
When asked what the learning experience was like playing behind these upperclassmen, Kelly responded, “In a way, I was brought back down to earth. I was a McDonald’s All-American and North Carolina Player of the Year, and you look around the players here are all those things too, and they’re four years older.” Playing behind these players was a reality check for Kelly.
Kelly’s high school coach Kevin Billerman played at Duke and was a team captain; he continues to coach at Ravenscroft. Kelly had a high school coach that knew the game and helped him learn just how hard you have to work. “The biggest thing I learned in college was you have to have a level of commitment that you never had before.”
Throughout his career at Duke, Kelly continued to get better, which was something that coach K instilled in him. Continuously keep working on getting better.
Kelly’s fondest memory from his time at Duke was his decision to come back from injury his senior year. “I had a big decision to have surgery and end my Duke career or try to come back and play. “
Kelly decided to give it a go at practice, and if it didn’t work out was going to elect to have surgery. It was his first team practice that lasted about forty-five minutes. “I called my parents later that day and told them I think I’m going to play, so if you want to come. I decided to come back and had the highest-scoring game of my career my first game back.”
He had no idea if he was going to get in the game, but coach K told him he was starting right before the game. Starting was something he thought was going to uplift him, and then he would be subbed out. “In the huddle before the game coach drew up a play for me, the first offensive play of the game. It was set up for a backscreen for me to pop out and shoot. It worked perfectly, and I missed. Well, from then on, I didn’t miss too often.”
Kelly scored 36 points versus Miami on 7 of 9 shooting from three-point range. When asked if he still gets asked about this game, Kelly responded, laughing, “I still do mostly by my kids who want to watch the YouTube video.”
In his four seasons at Duke, Kelly’s progression on the court was remarkable. He was the perfect example of a team player and became a proven winner. He also left Duke with some lifelong brothers (teammates). Andre Dawkins became one of his best friends, and they were part of each other’s weddings. There was no doubt that Kelly picked the right program, and the right program chose him.
After graduating from Duke, Kelly was drafted in the 2nd round (48th overall) in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. He didn’t have any workouts or go through any of the pre-draft processes because he had foot surgery.
“The situation was similar to Duke’s. The Lakers are beloved, hated, and worldwide.”
Moving from North Carolina to Los Angeles was going to be an adjustment, Kelly was fortunate enough to have his future wife Lindsay come along with him.
The Lakers had one draft pick that year, and due to Kelly’s injury gave him a non-guaranteed deal. Kelly was on a “prove it” contract, which is something he enjoyed and was something he wanted to thrive in.
“My rookie year in the NBA playing for Mike D’Antoni was my best year in the NBA even though I didn’t start to play closer to Christmas time.”
It was an interesting time to be in a Lakers uniform for Kelly. The team was in a rebuild, it was the last few years of the late Kobe Bryant’s career, and it didn’t consist of a lot of wins. Losing was a struggle for Kelly, who won a lot at Duke, but he used this time to prove himself that he belonged in the league.
Kelly would spend three seasons between the Los Angeles Lakers and South Bay Lakers of the D League. He averaged 6.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game over 147 games in Los Angeles.
During his fourth year in the NBA, Kelly was on the Atlanta Hawks. He went to training camp with the Hawks even though they had sixteen guaranteed contracts. “They waived two guaranteed contracts to keep me.”
The Hawks signed Kelly to a two-year deal with a non-guarantee for the second year. The second year of his contract had a weird guarantee date that would fully guarantee the second year. At that time, the Houston Rockets were trying to collect as many non-guaranteed contracts to facilitate the Chris Paul trade. According to Kelly, he was going to be traded to the Rockets, who were then going to trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers were then going to waive him so he can sign another non-guaranteed contract with the Hawks.
There was something with the collective bargaining agreement that would allow this to happen, but Houston never repackaged him to the Clippers and waived him. Due to the by-laws, Kelly couldn’t sign with the Hawks for a full calendar year.
Atlanta was the one team going to give Kelly a shot, but with that gone, he headed overseas.
In September of 2017, he signed in Spain to play with Real Betis. The style of play, the practicing, and the overall grind of it all was very different for Kelly. “The team invested pretty good money in players that had played at a high level in Europe. The hope was if we can perform above expectations, and I can play pretty well that it can garner some more interest to come back to the states.”
The team underperformed and had several players kicked off the team. Even though Kelly was scoring pretty well, it didn’t work out as planned, and the interest in him wasn’t there.
In 2018, Kelly signed a two-year deal to play with the Shibuya Sun Rockers in Japan’s Japanese B.League. The reason that Kelly ended up in Japan was due to his former teammate on the Lakers, Robert Sacre. Sacre worked to facilitate getting Kelly on the team.
Kelly excelled in Japan as the go-to player for his team. His first year for the Sun Rockers, he averaged a double-double with 21.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
This past year, Kelly’s wife and three kids moved to Japan. Kelly was excited to have his family altogether. He enjoyed playing in a new place and was playing well, but nothing compares to being with your family.
While the season was cut short, his performance on the court with the Sun Rockers continued to improve. He averaged 22.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. The Sun Rockers treated Kelly very well. The team provided rest days preserve his body the grind of a long season.
Alex Kirk, who plays for Alvark Tokyo in Japan, spoke about Kelly and said, “He is tough to cover in the league. He has the capabilities to play the three on the offensive end, and this means he’s guarded by a smaller Japanese player. Then he really spreads the floor at the four and opens things up for their guards.”
The competition is growing, and so is the league, which is something that Kelly is excited to be a part of. “The Japanese players are improving, and most guys that are signed are big guys. So you are going against size every night. I love playing here. We play in a city called Shibuya, which is in the heart of Toyko.”
Playing in the NBA was a dream come true for Ryan Kelly and a dream that he still wants to continue if the right opportunity presents itself. But he’s enjoyed the last two years in Japan and the responsibility of being put in a position to lead a team overseas.