Ryan Kelly didn’t have a very exciting summer.DURHAM, N.C. –
While many of his Duke teammates scattered around the country attending specialized training camps or playing for the U.S. select team and the pros, the Blue Devil sophomore spent his summer in Durham, attending both sessions of summer school and working to improve his body and his game.
“I knew that this was the most important thing for me,” he said. “I’m going to have opportunities [to play in summer events] in the future, I’m sure. But for this summer, I thought that it was really important to stay here and work.”
Kelly, a 6-10 McDonald’s All-American from Raleigh, N.C., has mixed feelings about his freshman season at Duke. On one hand, he was a part of a national championship team.
“I can’t say disappointed because any freshman year when you win a national championship can’t be considered a disappointment,” he said. “For me, that’s always something I’ll look back on. It will be an incredible thing to look back on.”
Yet, within the satisfaction of winning a national title ring was the frustration of playing such a small role on that team. While Kelly played in 35 of Duke’s 40 games, he averaged just 6.5 minutes a game – 1.2 points and 1.1 rebounds. His greatest contributions came in practice.
“I didn’t play in the national championship game,” he said. “I have goals that I want to be on the floor when we get back there. I want to be on the floor when that half-court shot is missed.”
To that end, Kelly didn’t waste much time after the team’s return from Indianapolis to start working towards his second season at Duke.
“I think I took a week off … just a little time to recover,” he said. “Then I got right back at it. I have lofty goals for myself and I knew where I needed to improve. I’ve always been confident in my basketball skills and I knew I needed to get my body in a place where I could play at this level.”
Kelly was barely 200 pounds as a high school senior at Raleigh’s Ravenscroft Academy. He worked diligently to add weight and strength before his freshman season. Unfortunately, his efforts were hindered by a brief illness late in the summer.
“I had one week where I got sick and couldn’t eat much,” he said. “I just lost a lot of weight that I had gained. I gained a good chunk of it back, but I wasn’t at a solid point when preseason started. And if you don’t solidify your weight – obviously we’re working a lot, running, so the weight didn’t stay on as well as I needed it to.”
Kelly played at around 215 pounds last season – and it was not enough.
“I was bumped around a little bit,” he admitted. “For us last year, we were pretty deep in the post. From what was asked at my position, I wasn’t the best at – and a lot of that was my strength. As I’ve gained strength, I’m hoping I’m able to fulfill the duties of rebounding, defending and being able to take advantage of my skill set.”
Coach Mike Krzyzewski noted at his mid-summer press conference that Kelly has made progress in that regard.
“I think Ryan is going to be a big contributor for us,” he said. “The amount of big guys that we had [last season] and the fact that he just didn’t have the weight [limited him]. But if you saw him now, he’s 6-10, 232-233 … and he’s skilled. He can shoot the ball and he’s a smart player. So that’s exciting.”
Kelly said that as of the first week of August, he’s at 234 or 235 pounds.
“And it’s good weight,” he said. “It’s strength. It’s muscle.
“So that was my number one goal – to get stronger … to be able to play my natural position which is kind of the four. I think with my offensive ability and the different parts of my game, I’m able to take advantage of mismatches.”
All over the country, players are trying to get better in the off-season.
In an age of one-and-done superstars, it’s easy to forget that most players still develop over the course of their careers. That was spectacularly illustrated last spring, when senior Brian Zoubek emerged late in his career as a dominant player.
“It was awesome to watch Brian do that,” Kelly said.
Kelly would like to do the same – just coincidence, but Kelly played almost exactly the same minutes last season (228) as Zoubek did as a freshman in 2007 (235).
But it’s not just Zoubek. Coach Krzyzewski has had a string of successful players who started their careers slowly and developed into essential players. Take Alaa Abdelnaby, who played 191 minutes as a freshman in 1987. By his senior season, he was a starter on a Final Four team and a first-round NBA draft pick. Erik Meek played just 143 minutes as a freshman in 1992 and by his senior year, he was a starter averaging 10 points and eight rebounds. He was a second-round NBA pick.
“I want to play in the NBA,” Kelly asserted. “Whenever the time is right for me, I’ll know it. I have to prove myself. I came out of high school somewhat proven at the high school level. Now I have to prove it at this level. People may have their doubts but I’m confident and I’m going to prove the doubters wrong.”
Duke’s chances of repeating as national champions are certainly bolstered by the return of proven stars such as preseason All-Americans Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, plus the addition of such celebrated newcomers as Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry.
But the ultimate outcome of the season also depends on how much improvement Duke’s young big men – Kelly and the Plumlee brothers – make in the post.
“I think what makes a good team today with all these one-and-done rules, the best teams are able to mix those types of guys,” Kelly said. “They are able to take guys that people think are going to leave after their freshman-sophomore year and mix them with four-year players.”
Kelly understands that it’s difficult to mix short-term and long-term talents.
“It’s easy to have different agendas … you have to have individual goals,” he said. “What Coach K has an unbelievable ability to do, is to take all these kids and make them play as one.”
Chemistry was a strength of last year’s team. Duke was not the most talented team in college basketball last season, but the Blue Devils exhibited an innate toughness and unselfishness that paid off in the school’s fourth national title.
The question is whether this year’s Duke team – which will be even more talented than last year’s championship squad – can recapture the intangible features that made the 2010 Devils so special.
“Exactly,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of talented individuals. The important thing is to be able to come together and play as one. From what I’ve seen so far from our freshmen and all of us, we get along really well. We spend time together – not just [in Cameron] – which is a good sign. That was something we did this past year. We were all really good friends. We liked each other. So far, I see that in this team as well.
“So we’ll see … time will only tell.”
Fitting in a New Style
Coach Krzyzewski has suggested that the 2010-11 Blue Devils will play very differently than last year’s championship team.
“Last year, we were, I think as good a halfcourt defensive team as there was in the country – one because of our defensive rebounding, but also we had big guys and we didn’t spread our defense out very much,” Krzyzewski said. “This year, Kyrie can really put pressure on the ball. Seth is available. We still have Kyle and Nolan, Andre [Dawkins] and Tyler [Thornton] can give us minutes.
“We just have more depth. So we’ll press more. We’ll run more. We didn’t have a guard who could make things happen for other people and Kyrie can do that.”
Kelly has seen Irving’s game up close – both in pickup games at Cameron and in the Durham Pro-Am League at North Carolina Central over the summer months.
“He’s tremendously talented,” Kelly said. “What’s impressive about him is that he has the ability to score, but he’s just as willing a passer and he’s very good at it. He handles the ball really well. From what I’ve seen so far, he has the ability to know when to push the ball and when to walk it up and control the tempo.
“I’m really looking forward to playing with him this year.”
Part of Kelly’s anticipation is the new style of play that Irving will bring. His game seems much more suited to the up-and-down game that Duke is expecting to play this season than the halfcourt oriented style that the Devils played a year ago.
“I think I take advantage,” Kelly said. “I’m pretty good running the floor and I know when to pick my spots – when to run the floor. Also, I’m somebody that can shoot pretty well and with the guards we have this year, there’s going to be a lot of drive and kicks. The four and five [positions] are often guys who helped a lot that are asked to help defensively and that will leave me for a lot of open shots. I think I’ll be able to knock those down.”
Duke assistant coach Chris Collins can envision a bigger, stronger Kelly playing a significant role this season.
“The exciting part about Ryan is, you can see that he’s going to be a very good player as soon as his physique catches up to his skill level and his mental level,” Collins said. “He’s a mismatch. He’s got 3-point range on his shot. He can pass the ball. He just got overpowered at times [last season].”
That shouldn’t happen this season.
Kelly put his new body – and improved game – on display in the summer pro-am league, playing on a team with Duke teammate Andre Dawkins. Together, they helped lead their team to the championship of a league that mixed college and pro players.
“I’ve felt pretty good about my game,” he said. “Summer ball is what it is – there are positives and negatives. It’s a good confidence builder. And obviously, you want to play against the best players. Between playing pickup against our guys here and playing in the pro-am, where you’re playing against college players and pro players, there’s not much more you could ask out of a summer playing basketball.”
But Kelly is asking for more in his sophomore season than he got out of his freshman year.
“Twenty years from now, I’m going to remember winning a national championship as one of the best moments of my life,” he said. “Hopefully, we can do it again and I can remember it as another of those best moments -- and next time I want to be out on the floor.”