Once the Lakers were on the clock, Mitch Kupchak felt a sense of uneasiness for reasons beyond Dwight Howard’s uncertain future or the fact the team only had the 48th pick in the NBA Draft.
The board the Lakers’ front office constructed tabbed Duke forward Ryan Kelly as the most talented prospect available, meaning Kupchak would have to compromise his North Carolina roots and choose an arch-rival down Tobacco Road for the sake of improving the Lakers.
“It was dramatic,” Kupchak said. “It was traumatic as well.”
Kelly wouldn’t go that far. He offered a hearty laugh through a telephone speakerphone during a conference call with Los Angeles-based reporters.
“He must like me a lot if he’s willing to draft a Duke guy,” Kelly said. “That excites me a little bit.”
It remains to be seen the exact impact a 48th draft pick could make on a veteran-laden team. But there’s several things that excite the Lakers about Kelly. First off, he averaged 12.9 points on 42.2 percent from three-point range his senior year.
“It’s unusual to get a guy who’s 6-11, 6-11½ that has a skill like he has. So, it’s a unique opportunity,” Kupchak said. “A big player that has an NBA frame that can shoot the ball, not only midrange, but he can make some shots [deep]. I think he can become a consistent 3-point shooter in the NBA as well.”
Kelly’s outside shooting and ability to play a stretch forward position also provides an ideal fit for Mike D’Antoni’s system, which trumpets pick-and-rolls and versatility over post-ups.
“I definitely think his system lends itself to what I can do,” Kelly said. “First of all, a great passer [in Steve Nash] at the point guard position and great size inside [in Dwight Howard] that’s going to demand a lot of attention and with the little bit more uptempo style, I think at Duke at times I would find different areas on the court to slow down and get spot-up 3-pointers in transition and different things. So, I’m certainly excited.”
Still, there’s some risk involved.
Kelly missed 13 games last season after experiencing setbacks with right foot a summer after having surgery on it. After the past season ended, Kelly had another surgery that entailed having a bigger screw to fix the fractured metatarsal. He’s currently approaching the 11th week of a 12-week rehab, preventing him from working out with all NBA teams, including the Lakers.
Both Kupchak and Kelly also expressed serious doubts he could play in the Lakers’ Vegas summer league team from July 12-22. Instead, they’re preparing for Kelly to fully rehab so he could arrive to training camp in late September completely healthy.
“I was realistic when you don’t work out and have a foot injury, that’s something people will have to look at and they may not be willing to take a chance,” Kelly said. “I sure was believing I was worth the chance. I’m going to prove anybody wrong that decided not to get me. I’m going to work hard everyday knowing that the Lakers gave me my opportunity and I’m going to go for it.”
Kelly sure went for it when he returned from his foot injury his senior year.
He scored a career-high 36 points Duke’s 79-76 win March 2 against the Miami Hurricanes after only practicing 20 minutes the night before. But Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski told Kelly he would start anyway. Kelly recalled KKrzyzewski still encouraged him after missing his first few shots.
“It was an amazing night and something I’ll never forget,” Kelly said. “But I think in a way, that showed some of the ability that I had and my ability to shoot the ball and make plays and do things like that change a game.”
Kelly believes he can also make an impact with the Lakers considering they’re in need of consistent outside shooters that can play multiple positions.
“I’m a guy that can shoot the basketball with the size and length that I have,” said Kelly, who said he’s tried to model his game after New Orleans forward Ryan Anderson, Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki and Orlando forward Hedo Turkoglu. “There’s a spot on a lot of rosters that need that. I certainly think the Lakers are one of them and I have to earn everything that I get and I know that. I’m going to have to work hard. I think my ability to shoot the basketball and my ball friendliness for a guy my size can pass a little bit, dribble the ball a little bit. Those are the things that will allow me to play on a team like the Lakers.”
Still, there’s some question marks. Namely on defense.
“Through my career at Duke, that was something that I really did improve on,” Kelly said. “I know that I always work hard on the defensive end, and as I continue to grow as a player and work on my lateral mobility, I think I got a lot better. By my senior year, I often was being put on the best big guy and have to either battle in the paint or guard a quicker guy. I think I can do those things. I do know that I’ve worked really hard to be a great help-side defender. I take charges and block shots and do the little things. That’s what I pride myself on as a player that does the little things and works hard. I think those things will transition well.”
It remains to be seen how smoothly that will happen.
But Kelly could have a trusty ally in Kobe Bryant, whom he met last summer in Vegas when the Lakers star played for Team USA under Krzyzewski in the 2012 London Olympics. Kelly also has support from Kupchak, who otherwise would have served as adversary in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry.
“I’ve been handed a great opportunity and I really look forward to taking advantage of it,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to put into words how excited I am. That’s all I can say. I’m just unbelievably excited.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org