Duke’s Ryan Kelly: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Posted by mpatton on November 26th, 2012

Ryan Kelly may be Duke‘s most important player. Just look at the Blue Devils’ tailspin last season when he went down with an injured foot. In Duke’s losses last year Kelly averaged five points a game (not including the two Ls he missed due to injury). In Duke’s wins he averaged over 13 points a game. That’s a striking difference. Kelly’s averages from last season are identical to this season (11.8 points per game and just over five rebounds per game), though he’s seen a dramatic drop in his efficiency from beyond the arc and at the charity stripe. The free throw problem is probably a short-term slump and his three point percentage will also likely rise but remain below last season’s excellent 41% mark. But don’t let identical output and depressed percentages confuse you: Kelly is an improved player whose game has evolved a lot even since last season.

Duke really missed Ryan Kelly at the end of last season. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The most quantifiable change has come in his shot selection. Last year over 40 percent of Kelly’s shots were threes; this year just over 30 percent of his attempts come from distance. Rather than taking low-percentage contested twos, Kelly’s mid-range game is flourishing. At 6’11”, he’s virtually impossible for more athletic wings to guard, instead drawing power forwards to the perimeter where he has the advantage. Instead of settling for threes this season, he’s taken one or two steps inside the arc, where he’s nearly automatic. Kelly also appears to be more comfortable operating out around 12-16 feet from the basket, as his turnovers are down this year, potentially because he isn’t forcing things as much.

The other significant improvement Kelly has made to his game is defensively. Kelly was an abysmal defender his first couple of seasons in Durham. Last year his defensive awareness improved markedly, although his shot blocking suffered. This year, Kelly is much better all-around — he is a very good shot-blocker and appears much better at masking his poor lateral quickness.

But not everything about Kelly’s game is improved. He still really struggles defensively away from the ball. He’s very good at blanketing other stretch fours (see: Kyle Wiltjer), but he struggles knowing where to be in the post. Often Kelly floats away from his man when help defense isn’t needed, allowing an offensive rebound or leaving his man open for a dunk. He’s an abysmal rebounder for his size and almost never puts a body on his man. Kelly has to work on keeping his assignment from getting the rebound and Duke’s defensive rebounding (the only thing keeping its defense from becoming elite) will improve.

Ryan Kelly is a very different player from last season.

Related, Duke’s struggles on the glass are the quickest way for bench guys to earn minutes. If Amile Jefferson, Alex Murphy or Josh Hairston can prove himself a strong rebounder, he’ll see an increase in playing time. Marshall Plumlee should help on the glass and will see minutes backing up his brother at the five. But there are still plenty of minutes that appear up for grabs in the Duke rotation. Ryan Kelly is one of Duke’s most important players. If his three-point and foul shooting percentages start trending toward last season’s numbers and he starts rebounding more competently, he might also be Duke’s best player in addition to its most important one.

mpatton (466 Posts)


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