One on one with Ryan Kelly

The TDD Alumni Series resumes with a sit-down with former Blue Devil power forward and national champion, Ryan Kelly. Kelly averaged 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds with the Los Angeles Lakers this past season.

To start Ryan, your Media Relations Director had mentioned you had been with the D-League team and you just had been called back up not too long before we did this interview…

Ryan Kelly:  Yeah, this year I have been going up and down between the Lakers and the Defenders to get more playing opportunity and to work on my game.

For fans who aren’t familiar, how does that process work and how does it help your development?

Yeah for the first three years in the league, the team can place you up and down as many times as they like. For a player like myself, I just look at it as an opportunity to get better. At the time I’ve been in the rotation these past few games before this interview, but it’s a long season and you never know what’s going to happen, so you always want to be ready to play.  That’s how I look at going to the D-League, it’s just helping me stay ready. Then on top of that it’s a bonus that you get to be thrust into a position where in the NBA game you are maybe more of a role player and obviously the ball may not be in my hands a ton whereas in the D-League the ball is going to be in my hands a lot more and I get an opportunity to work on my game, create shots for myself and for others and expand my role and have a bigger opportunity there.

In terms of working on your game, what has changed since you turned pro?

When people saw me , they saw me as a stretch four who could kinda shoot the ball.  You have to be able to shoot the NBA 3-pointer at a high clip and it’s a big jump in distance from the college three pointer, so that’s always been a focus that I’ve worked on and working to get that shot off quicker against quicker, faster and stronger players has been another thing I’ve worked on a lot. 

Another thing I’ve done is working on driving the ball from different points on the floor to either get to the basket or dribble pull-ups which I didn’t do quite as much in college. In this game you have to be able to create at some level because there’s always going to be times where guys are going to be creating shots for you, but you also have to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are there to create for yourself.

Then since I’ve come out of high school, the main focus for me has been working on my body and keeping myself in the best physical condition that I can. My body has changed a bunch since I stepped on Duke’s campus to now.

Are there experiences in your pro career that you can point to that you feel have really helped shape your development into the NBA player that you are now?

I think that’s a good question. It’s definitely happened over time, it doesn’t happen at a snap of the finger. In the NBA game you definitely have to be able to defend individually a lot more and in my position, the 4 in the NBA there is a real wide variety of players with the way they play.  There’s stretch 4s where a lot of teams will play smaller ball, so they are almost wings who are playing the 4 position.  Then there’s a lot of big, strong power forwards too.  That’s probably been the bigger transition then even offensively is learning how to defend different types of players and that’s something I continue to work on. One thing I know that’s helped me a lot is Coach K always was so big on communication and being a leader with your talking defensively, so I’ve tried to carry that over the best I can.

You’ve both had success at the NBA level while also fighting through some adversity with injuries and whatnot… Can you share a little bit about both and how you’ve dealt with both ends of the career spectrum?

Sure yeah, I’ve had an interesting career because starting out I was drafted after my senior year at Duke and I had foot surgery that summer to fix a bone in my foot.  I got drafted by LA and the doctors here kept wanting me to wait to play and I understood but at the same time, I was on a 1-year, non-guaranteed rookie deal, so I really wanted to play.  Long story short during that first training camp, they finally let me go and be a part of the team and really practice and play games.  Then like a majority of rookies I really didn’t get a chance to play hardly at all for the majority of my rookie year until right at Christmas, which I vividly remember because there was a play where I got matched up on LeBron in really my first major minutes in the NBA… So, it wasn’t pretty for me, but that’s part of the game, haha.

Then I went on to have a pretty solid rookie year and then something I hadn’t really experienced until I got to the NBA.  I had a coaching change, a change in staff who looked at the game differently and I hadn’t really gone through anything like that in high school or college.  

I was going through that new experience and then at the same time I tore my hammy pretty good in training camp, and that set me back at the start of my second year. It was certainly frustrating but I was still given a opportunity to contribute and I worked really hard to get back because hamstring injuries are really tricky, it can be hard to tell when they fully healed.  So I spent a lot of time where I would play and it wouldn’t be right still with the injury, which was really frustrating.  Then when I came back we had a shortage actually at the 3 spot which was somewhere I had never really played before, especially coming off a hamstring injury.  

I spent most of the year last year playing at that position and competing my best.  A lot of my energy had to be expended on the defensive side of the court so I could play my best against those guys since they were pretty quick. I had never really guarded anybody that quick who would come off the down screen like that, so I was learning on the fly and I think that really affected the offensive side of the ball for me last year. Then going into this year, I had to work for every second of playing time and any last six, seven minutes of the game if we were in blowout, that was my opportunity to not only show my organization with the Lakers but also every organization in the League that I deserve to be here.

You mind if I ask what has really helped you stay in it mentally throughout all the adversity you’ve described you have faced in the NBA?

I think the biggest thing for me is I always want to do well for my family.  I’m married, and I have a son now and I want to provide the best place I possibly can for them.  I know we are really blessed and I’m sure I’ll have many opportunities to do what I want after basketball, but this game, you get a very small window of time where you can be really successful and I look at it as my only option right now. I try to compete everyday with that mindset.

What’s it been like being an NBA family now with the introduction of your little guy into it?

It’s been incredible. It’s tough some days like when you are on a road trip for two weeks and you leave and he’s not crawling at all that first day, then you get back and he’s crawling all over the place.  There’s some tough days like that but thank goodness we also have FaceTime which is a huge help for my wife and I. It’s been a blast for me and my wife, she’s been incredible at taking care of him while I’ve been gone and when I’m there, I try to be the best father I can be.

Was it as big an adjustment when you guys adjusted from east coast living to west coast living?

LA is definitely really different from Raleigh/Durham, NC, that’s for sure.

For us, we found a really good spot near the beach which is a little bit more like the pace we were used to on the east coast which we enjoy. There’s no way to get used to LA traffic, that’s everyday for sure. That and the rent and how much we pay for the rent…I’ll never be used to that!

Let’s look a little further back to the pre-draft process for you if I may. Every player has a different experience there, so what was it like for you?

My pre-draft process was very unique because I didn’t get the opportunity to work out for any teams because I had surgery right after my senior season on my fifth metatarsal. I had played on it broken since that Miami game and it wasn’t just healed enough and it was really deteriorating as the season went along.  So I had surgery and I didn’t really workout with any teams but I was able to travel and go meet with a few teams. I was invited to the NBA Draft Combine based off what I had done in college, and right around that time I was able to be out of the walking boot.

Overall, it was a unique process and I went into the draft thinking it was possible I might not be drafted. Then the Lakers were in a window where it was maybe possible, but we had not heard from them and we had no idea they were a team that was considering drafting me. It worked out great and I’ve had a blast being here and it was a blessing to be drafted by them because it was a whirlwind leading up to the draft.

How much did the Duke staff help with your pre-draft process?

I think they were huge in that any front office or coach that called asking about me as a player, they had nothing but positives to say.  I know Coach did a lot for me, especially since teams didn’t know what to expect of me coming off my injury. That was a re-fracture of one I had already fractured which is not uncommon, but I thought teams would be much more nervous of not knowing what I would be like because of that.  I know that both the coaching staff and the medical/training staff at Duke were incredibly positive about my situation and they all spoke very highly of me and my situation, which is something I will never forget. They really went to bat for me no question and you know, those are the types of people that Coach K brings into his family there. You really do feel like you are a part of a big family. It’s nothing less than what I would have expected them to do, but it still means a lot to me.  Coach has always been there for me throughout my whole career there and past it. He’s the first one to shoot me a text if he sees something and wants me to know he’s seen me do something good when I’ve done good things. I talk to Coach Wojo all the time too, so I constantly stay connected with those guys and it’s something special with them that you never lose.

Was Wojo your primary recruiter from Duke while you were in high school?

Yeah he was, him and obviously Coach K were the two guys who were my recruiters. Coach Wojo was always the first one to go to bat for me, there’s no question about that.

What do you remember about the Duke recruiting process with you?  When did it really start and when did it progress to really serious interest for you?

You know it was funny, I think maybe early in my junior year, or maybe the summer before my junior year I started to hear from Duke.  My ranking jumped off and I was on the page for a lot of people I would say, so colleges started giving either me or my high school coach a call.  

Not long after that Mason (Plumlee) committed to Duke and both of us were playing in North Carolina high schools and were considered top forwards.  I think Duke was thinking we played the same position and they thought that I may not want to come there because of that, so Duke kinda cooled off a little bit with me.  Then after my junior year I played with Mason at Team USA Basketball, the U-19 team.  I think after that, the coaches had watched a lot of those games and I think they realized how different our two games were and that we could certainly work together, it was obvious that they wouldn’t be recruiting the same player.

Then after that, it wasn’t long after that, Coach was doing the Olympics in China and I remember him distinctly giving me a call and telling me, “just don’t do anything or make any decision until after I get back from China,” because he definitely knew that I had my list of schools at that point. I wasn’t planning on deciding then, but we definitely knew it would to get in contact with him while he was there. So when he got back, I went on all my official visits that I could and Duke was the one for me.

What for you were the major deciding factors in choosing to go to Duke?

I think it was a few things. I really didn’t grow up having a favorite team when we moved to Raleigh and when I was younger.  I never really picked one so we always enjoyed going to all of the games locally.  I think there were a few things with Duke.  One I always remember is when I went on recruiting visits to schools, I always wanted to play with the guys on the team and a lot of times, the coaches would tell the team before those games to get me the ball, get him the ball so he can feel good and that does make you feel good because you feel like you belong and that you could be a big-time player at all of these schools.  But I always remember going to Duke and when I went to play pickup with the guys on the team, it was was as if I was already on the team and I was competing for a spot.  They really wanted to beat me down as bad as any of them would because I was coming to take somebody’s spot.  I always loved that competitive drive, and I thought it was the coolest thing and I knew I would become a much better player if I went to Duke.

On top of that, it did not hurt when Coach K called me while he’s coaching Kobe and LeBron and some of the greats ever, that doesn’t ever hurt either. There were a lot of plusses there and I always felt that I couldn’t go wrong with any of the schools on my list because they were all great academic schools and great basketball programs. Those little gut feelings were what got me to Duke.

I remember me and my parents and my high school coach we sat down and we did the old positives and negatives with each situation and while that helps, it didn’t do everything I needed, so it really came down to my gut and Duke was the place I really wanted to go and I never regretted it.

Then you get to Duke freshman year and you end up being a part of a national championship team…

Oh it was a whirlwind.  Obviously, I was a big-time recruit, a McDonald’s All American, and all those accolades.  Then you get on campus and you realize everybody else is too.  So having to go through that learning curve and working through things, nothing was going to be handed anything and you had to work hard to earn everything you got.

I think my freshman year really became my motivator and it still is to this day but certainly for my college career because we won a national championship my freshman year but I didn’t play one second of that game. I still am very happy to be a part of something that special, but there’s no question it was motivation and a desire to be in a position that I wanted to be back there and I wanted to be a much bigger part of that process. Unfortunately and not many people can say they have been to multiple national championships and we weren’t able to, but that motivated me to become a much better player.

What do you remember of the experience of going for the national championship that first year?

It was really an amazing experience because a lot of times you notice there’s kinda an air about it where everybody is moving in the right decision and that’s how I really remember that second half of my freshman year because that’s when things really started to click. You saw guys who were just willing to sacrifice and do what it took like Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek.  Those guys were my vets and for a lot of their careers, they hadn’t quite figured it out yet but at the right time they clicked and just had all the right pieces.

I have two distinct memories and they both involve my good friend to this day, Andre Dawkins.  Andre was ready in that Baylor game and I don’t know how many 3’s he hit, but it was a huge turning point in the game and then he hit a couple threes before the first half ended and then another one towards the end of the game. But that’s a distinct memory for me because he didn’t know how much he was going to play and how important a role he was going to have. So for him to be ready and to make those plays, you don’t win a national championship, you don’t win that Baylor game unless he hits those big shots when he was in a position where he didn’t even know if he was going to get a shot.  

I remember that and obviously, like everybody else, I remember that Gordon Hayward shot up in the air and it felt like the ball was in the air for a long time. I remember Andre and I looking at each other when he released it and we thought it was going to be close. I had some amazing memories from that run, but like I said, it was also a weird type of celebration for me because I very much wanted to be a bigger part of it.

Nolan Smith talked about the leadership example on that team that was set by the veterans in this interview series, how do you think their leadership influenced your career at Duke and ultimately how you led as an upperclassman?

I think when I watched them, they were willing to do whatever it took and they really wanted to leave a legacy.  They wouldn’t accept anything less than greatness.  For me it ended up boiling down to my senior year when I hurt my foot and I had to make the decision whether I was going to try and play on it or not. I actually thought back to those guys during my freshman year and while they didn’t have to go through that, I knew the level of importance that the Duke family meant to those guys and ultimately that was a big reason why I decided to leave my mark my senior year.  I didn’t want to just have surgery and then move onto the next phase of my career.  I wanted to finish it in my Duke uniform the best way I could and I didn’t want to accept going out hurt.  

So that, even though that was a part of my life four years earlier, it really helped me see that selflessness that I saw in those guys is what led us.  And it was not just me personally, but also Seth Curry who played through his shin injury all year and we had a lot of guys making selfless decisions and that’s when good things happen. It doesn’t always lead to a national championship, but we were a pretty darn good team and I think our class left a legacy.

Coming back from that injury in the Miami game, what do you remember about the day of the game and knowing you were going to play and then having the game that you did?

It’s nothing short of amazing really. The day before the game I went through a practice where we went 5-on-5 for the first time for me for all of 10 minutes.  Then Coach said, “Hey, you looked pretty good.”  It didn’t feel great, but I knew I could do it.  Then he asked me if I wanted to play tomorrow, and I told him “sure”.  I knew there weren’t many games left at the end of that season, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I called my parents and they were local so they had been coming to the game.  I told them I was going to try and play and my mom told me, “Oh, that’s great.” They came the next day and they didn’t even really tell anybody because they were expecting me to maybe give a motivational lift by getting in there for a few minutes and give the team some motivation or a little positive push that I was fighting through the injury.

The thing I remember the most is Coach called my name and said I’m going to start, and it was probably one of the most loudest experiences I’ve ever had in Cameron when my name was called in the starting lineup…it’s something I’ll never forget.  The appreciation from the fans was just great. Then after that Coach K drew up the first play for me.  He said “we’re going to run this play and you are going to be wide open from 3”.  

I was.  And then I missed it.

But, I didn’t miss much after that and he kept going to me and the way the game worked out, I was still fighting through some pretty tough stuff.  I had this pretty big, they call it a clamshell, it’s a kind of cast for my shoe and it was tearing up my foot. The one time I really came out of the game was to cover up a bloody sock because it was tearing at my foot. It was an amazing experience and I can only credit the medical staff because they got me ready to play and then obviously Coach for instilling obvious confidence in me, it was out of this world.

A lot of players in this series have talked about the confidence Coach K instilled in them at Duke.  Aside from what you just shared, what are the most memorable examples of that for you?

He helped mold me into a man. You think you are a man when you go into college and then you realize you have some growing up to do.  His interactions always made me better.  Better as a player, better as a person and a man, especially as I got more and more into my career.  And really he had a level of expectation of me and my classmates that we could be great.  When everybody has that expectation of each other, good things happen and you are much more likely to do great things which we did my freshman year and then I saw it as I got older because he was creating those expectations for us and we had to have it for ourselves as well. That’s something I’ll never forget and I always try to go back to. You are always going to have bad games, shoot, I had a bad game the other night with shooting the ball, but Coach K is one of the greatest coaches every and he always has confidence in me and he believed in me. I always believed that if he believed in me then I could believe in myself.

As a leader in the Duke program and being a really good friend to Andre Dawkins, how did you work with him during the issues he faced during his time in Durham?

I always wanted to give him space, but also be there when he needed me to be there.  I did my best to be at his side when he needed me to be and that’s a tragedy that I obviously can’t understand, it’s such a tough thing to go through and I don’t even want to have to imagine the emotions that he dealt with. That’s what I can say…I tried to be the best friend I could be to him.

In closing, how would you sum up your growth and evolution at Duke?

I just had to learn to overcome some adversity after my freshman year.  Things didn’t go perfect then from an individual sense, and for so many kids these days - they would want to leave and transfer, but I was always a firm believer that I had made a firm decision with my family, my coaches and my faith and if I put in the hard work in my Duke career then I would be successful.  I do the same thing now, and I approach it the same way.  If I’m willing to put in the work and time, good things will happen and so far they have.

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