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Jan. 26, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Just for the record, Ryan Kelly knows he’s going to miss a shot.
“Probably pretty soon,” he said with a chuckle.
Kelly, a 6-foot-11 sophomore at Duke, has been on a tear in his last two games, going 10-for-10 from the floor in road wins over NC State and Wake Forest. Six of those shots were 3-pointers.
He also knows that hot streaks and cold streaks are the nature of basketball. In his previous three games, Kelly was 4-for-15, including 1-for-9 beyond the arc.
“I’ve been working on my shot,” he said. “After practice, during practice, whenever I can, just getting lots of shots up. I had gone through a little streak where I hadn’t hit a few in a row so I needed to get in a little extra work.
“I’m confident that the next shot I take is always going in. That’s the mentality you have to have as a basketball player and scorer and a shooter. You don’t think about it, you just fire it up there and you think every one is going in. That’s the way the game goes sometimes.”
Kelly has had other good games this season, but those back-to-back outings (11 points against NC State and a career-high 20 against Wake Forest) may have signaled a breakout for him. He has started 15 of Duke’s 19 games this season and overall is averaging 6.7 points and 3.7 rebounds. But his recent surge pushed his stats in ACC games to 8.7 points and 5.0 rebounds.
Most defenses focus first on Duke seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, and secondarily on perimeter shooters like Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry. Now Kelly, who plays the power forward spot, creates another headache with his outside shooting.
Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said his defense looked to make Singler and Smith take tough shots. But then Kelly would find some space, the defense wouldn’t recover back to him quickly enough and the next thing the Deacons knew, two or three more points were on the board.
“(Kelly) made open shots but he also made a couple of tough shots and that was huge for them,” Bzdelik said.
And then when the defense paid more attention to Kelly, that opened up driving lanes for Singler and Smith.
Boston College coach Steve Donahue, whose team plays at Duke Thursday night, said the way Kelly shoots is more typical of a guard than a big man.
“He swings the ball like a guard and against bigger guys they’re just not used to that,” Donahue said. “It’s not just that he can make that shot, it’s that his preparation is almost like a 6-5 kid stepping into it. It gets off quick and if you fly at him he can put it on the floor and find somebody else.
“I think those are the impressive things for a kid that size. And as he gets more seasoned and gets a little stronger, I think you’ll see another one of their great players developing.”
Kelly came to Duke with the reputation of an outside shooter because he won the McDonald’s All-America 3-point contest. But he said that wasn’t his role at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh.
“You know, it’s always been something that I’ve worked a lot on and I’ve shot a lot,” he said, “but to be honest when I was in high school I really didn’t shoot many threes. I didn’t need to because I was more around the basket. Obviously, I’ve worked a lot on it and I’ve continued to work on it and continued to add to my game.”
In his freshman season, when Duke won the national title, Kelly played in 35 of 40 games but averaged only 1.2 points and 1.1 rebounds in less than seven minutes per game. One reason was little room in the rotation up front with seniors Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas getting most minutes, supplemented by sophomore Miles Plumleee and freshman Mason Plumlee.
And another reason was that he carried only 210 pounds on his frame and just wasn’t physically ready. Kelly stayed at Duke for both sessions of summer school and added 25 pounds through work in the weight room and consuming things like protein shakes. More importantly, he gained strength.
“I spent as much time here as possible working on my body and my game and it certainly paid off,” Kelly said. “It’s not where I need to be or where I want to be, but it was a huge step for me getting better this summer and throughout the year.
“Through high school a lot of my game was around the basket and when you get to college everybody is better, faster, stronger. The added strength has helped me a lot to be able to bang down low and defend and to play Duke defense.”
When practice started in October, the difference in Kelly was evident.
“We knew that Ryan Kelly would be a good player,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Last year he was just really underweight for the physical play that you have at this level. It wasn’t for lack of effort or lack of talent, he just wasn’t ready. Putting on weight, strength … he started our practice sessions already a different player.”
Krzyzewski said Kelly is a low-maintenance player who is easy to coach and doesn’t require “couch time” where things have to be explained to him.
“He’s a very reliable player who doesn’t get flustered, who knows where he’s supposed to be at all times and is ready to take his shot,” the coach said.
Those instincts come naturally to Kelly. Athletics, particularly basketball, course through the veins of his family.
His father, Chris Kelly, played at Yale and then professionally in France for three years. His grandfather, the late Richard Casey, played at Fordham. Two uncles, Ray Casey and Sean Casey, played at small colleges and are high school coaches.
Then there’s his mom, Doreen Casey Kelly, who was a standout volleyball player at Villanova and Penn and played internationally. Kelly said he admires her virtues as a leader (she’s the Head of School at Ravenscroft) while also appreciating her athletic side.
A younger brother plays baseball and basketball and will attend Duke, although he won’t play a sport. And his little sister is an 8th-grader who plays on the varsity basketball team.
That’s a whole lot of people able to provide feedback.
“They’re honest and positive at the same time,” Kelly said. “We have a great support system here at Duke, but also to have family members who understand what I’m going through and everything that’s happening with me, it’s so helpful.”
He has heard numerous stories through the years. His grandfather, for instance, still holds his high school scoring record, set well before the days of 3-pointers. But he also passed along the importance of defense.
“He was always trying to teach me the best defensive principles possible,” Kelly said. “His entire high school career had been scoring the ball and he didn’t know how to play a lick of defense, so it took him a little while to get on the court (in college).”
Kelly said his dad, who is 6-8, was just happy to be on the team as a freshman but rose to team captain as a senior.
“He always would tell me you have to go out and do what you do best every day,” Kelly said. “You can’t settle for the position you’re in; you have to keep trying to get better. He was a captain his senior year and he tore up his ankle just a few games into his senior year and was done for the season. It gave him a real great appreciation for the teammates he had and the team he was playing with because you never really quite understand what you have until you lose it.”
And the best advice Kelly ever got?
“Both my father and grandfather have told me you have to put everything you have into what you love,” he said. “And I love the game of basketball, so I put everything I have into it.”
Something else instilled in Kelly was the importance of academics and preparing for his future after basketball. He made the ACC All-Academic team as a freshman and is majoring in Public Policy, although he doesn’t know where that may ultimately lead.
It’s still early in Kelly’s career, so there is plenty of room to expand his game. His rebounding has stepped up – 14 in his last two games – and he can block a shot now and then.
Krzyzewski said the next thing likely to emerge in Kelly’s game will be shot fakes and moves to the basket. Eventually Kelly may slide inside on occasion and be an effective scorer there, but right now that’s not a priority.
“He has good balance,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s not a jumping-jack athlete but a good athlete. He gives us the opportunity, at the four, to have another outstanding shooter.”
Rolling along at 15-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country doesn’t mean Duke will take anything for granted the rest of the season.
“They all matter the same and you have to go into every ACC game with the same intense preparation,” Kelly said. “We have to continue getting better. We have great leaders in Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith and the supporting cast has to continue getting better, whether it be the bigs inside or the other guards, and we have done that so far this season.
“Teams that are going to win have to be able to get better during the season. They can’t be at their best at the beginning, they have to be at their best at the end. So far we’ve been getting better every day and that’s only showing us good signs for the future.”
And that dovetails nicely with Kelly’s own development.
“I’m continuing to grow as a player,” he said, “and I’m feeling more and more comfortable on the basketball court and I’m just getting better.”
Even if he does miss a shot or two along the way.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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