Nothing could prepare Ryan Kelly for this moment.
The Lakers’ rookie forward had just made his third consecutive appearance this season, and somehow there he stood on an island having to defend LeBron James.
“Like anything else, you have to find a way to stop him,” Kelly said. “I didn’t.”
Yup, James relished the opportunity and simply bulldozed his 6’9, 270-pound frame toward the basket. The Miami Heat forward drew the And-1, let out a Kobe Bryant-like type scowl and gave Kelly a “Welcome to the NBA” experience. A day after the Lakers’ 101-95 loss Christmas Day to the Miami Heat at Staples Center, Lakers forward Nick Young and teammates shared a good laugh about the incident.
“I think his (eyes widened) probably,” Lakers guard Jordan Farmar joked.
Yet, Farmar then praised Kelly for being a “competitor” and oozing about the “positive impact he’s had so far.” More importantly, Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni offered the same sort of praise and suggesting Kelly will have an increased role beginning when the Lakers (13-16) visit the Utah Jazz (8-23) Friday at EnergySolutions Arena.
“He knows how to play defensively and offensively. Defensively, he’s the first one to get to the right spot. I think going forward he can keep earning more time. I’m pretty excited about it.”
Kelly obviously is, too.
“It’s certainly exciting to be able to feel myself be in the game,” Kelly said. “I feel like I made a difference in the game. There’s not a lot of rookies who get that opportunity, especially guys who are second round picks. I’m pretty fortunate to have coaches and coaching staff to trust me to do that. Every single day, I have to continue to earn it.”
The Lakers drafted the Duke forward out of the 48th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. But he stayed sidelined for all of summer league and the first two weeks of training camp, rehabbing his right foot stemmed from a surgery in April to repair a screw that was inserted into his foot the previous year to treat a broken bone.
The Lakers kept him to a non-guaranteed contract worth the rookie minimum 490,180, however, because of Kelly’s strong outside shooting, floor spacing and high basketball IQ. Since then, Kelly had played in only 23 minutes this season in garbage time for five games. But with D’Antoni endlessly finding combinations toward his roster, Kelly provided meaningful minutes lately. That started when D’Antoni threw Kelly late in the first quarter of the Lakers’ game Monday in Phoenix.
“There was no question I didn’t know it was going to happen, but I just wanted to always be ready,” Kelly said. “I sit there, if you watch me the whole game, I’m the first one to stand up during every timeout. I run out there just as much [as the players in the game] to celebrate with my teammates, but even more so [to show] that I’m ready to go.”
And once Kelly entered the game, it took him less than a minute to can a 14-foot jumper. He has shot a dependable 45.5 percent from the field this season, but he’s never taken any more than four attempts in a game. Because of that, the Lakers set up simulated practice drills where Kelly has to take shots without even building a rhythm.
It also helps Kelly carved out a niche in his four seasons at Duke where he averaged 12.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots his senior season while shooting 42% from three-point range.
“That’s a skill I have for a guy my size to be able to shoot the basketball,” Kelly said. “I said that from the beginning. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. If I’m open, I’m going to shoot it.”
So when he served multiple stints with the Lakers’ Development League affiliate, the D-Fenders, Kelly wasted no time lighting up the scoreboard. Through four games, Kelly averaged 25.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
“Mitch and everybody has been great in the whole time period of getting me up and down so I was getting a lot of practice time with both teams and playing in a lot of minutes in games,” Kelly said, referring to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. “I hadn’t done that since college in playing in long games or scrimmages since the end of my senior season. That was tremendously helpful, even if I wasn’t necessarily playing the same role.”
But Kelly still found a niche with the Lakers.
He lives up to his Duke reputation by taking charges. Though Kelly doesn’t have a lot of foot speed, he compensates by remaining disciplined as a helpside defender. Even if his shot opportunities are limited, Kelly also maximizes floor spacing. Kelly routinely haves film.
“One of the most important things in the NBA, I think, is staying engaged for the whole possession defensively,” Kelly said. “It’s easy. There’s so many possessions in a game to take one off or to relax. I know I can’t do that. When I’m concentrating and making the right movements, I think I help our team defensively.”
The Lakers have noticed.
“Kelly can play. He’s a great rookie,” Farmar said. “He waits his turn, he works really hard and when he gets an opportunity he’ll be ready for it. We all have confidence in his ability and what he does on the practice floor when we do get a chance to get out here. He can help us. He stretches the floor, but he can also make plays. He has probably one of the best pump fakes in the game, it’s really slow and long, but guys go for it and he can get in the paint. He has that Duke basketball education and it’s working for him right now.
Yet, there’s a reason Kelly hardly seems satisfied for reasons that go beyond wanting to improve his game. As much progress as he’s made with the Lakers, both his contract and his place on the roster doesn’t become guaranteed until after Jan. 10. So for now, Kelly will continue honing in on all the shooting, floor spacing, film work and defensive concepts that elevated his role in the first place.
“I put myself in a position for (D’Antoni) to call my name,” Kelly said. “Now I have to go out there and make him trust me to keep me out there.”
Oh yeah, and perhaps prepare better for that moment when he matches up with a star player, such as James.
“It was a pretty easy challenge for him,” Kelly said. “I have to make it a little tougher. Like anything else, you have to find a way to stop him. I didn’t. But that’s a learning experience and something to grow on.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org