Produce or perish: The journey of Lakers rookie Ryan Kelly

This story originally appeared on in May of 2014

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Ryan Kelly was gathered with his family at home in Raleigh, N.C., last June, watching the NBA draft on television and waiting to find out where his basketball journey would take him.

He attempted to stay away from the commotion, taking refuge in the kitchen and watching on the smallest TV in the house. Finally, in the second round, the news broke, courtesy of his grandmother, who got the scoop from Twitter: Los Angeles Lakers. No. 48 overall.

The Kelly family (from left): brother Sean, father Chris, mother Doreen, sister Erin, Aru (from Sudan, who has lived with the family for six years), and Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Kelly family)
The Kelly family (from left): brother Sean, father Chris, mother Doreen, sister Erin, Aru (from Sudan, who has lived with the family for six years), and Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Kelly family)

After a successful career at Duke that included four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a national championship, Kelly would be leaving North Carolina for Hollywood, swapping his blue and white for purple and gold.

“It initially hit me that I had been playing at Duke for the last four years,” Kelly said. “We expected championships every year, and when I got drafted by the Lakers I was like ‘wow, there couldn’t be any more perfect fit’ considering how greatness is expected on a daily basis. So I was really excited.”

What followed, though, was a season with more difficulties than anyone could have predicted, as the Lakers battled a constant stream of injuries and limped to a 27-55 finish. By comparison, Kelly experienced just 23 losses in his four seasons at Duke.

But with the losses and injuries came opportunity. And Kelly, despite being drafted deep in the second round, was better prepared than most to take advantage – and not just because he played for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. For Kelly, it goes much deeper than that.

‘We don’t play the game, we compete’

The Kellys are highly educated and athletic. They are competitive and focused. They value hard work and resiliency. These qualities have served the family well for generations. Doreen Kelly, Ryan’s mom, played volleyball at Penn. His father Chris was a basketball player at Yale, and the couple spent the first three years of their marriage playing their sports professionally in France.

The parents are now educators, as Doreen is Head of School at Ravenscroft, a Pre-K-through-12 school in Raleigh where Ryan became a high school All-American. Chris also works at Ravenscroft as an admissions administrator and physics teacher. The family has a philosophy that applies well beyond sports.

“There’s been a generational view of ‘we don’t play the game, we compete,’” said Doreen Kelly. “We believe hard work beats talent when talent isn’t working hard enough.”

This explains why Ryan didn’t take more than a couple of moments to celebrate being drafted. There was no time to relax. No time to rest and enjoy the moment. There was simply too much work to do: A deeper 3-point line to adjust to. A long, grueling season – and bigger, stronger and faster opponents – to prepare for.

“We all understood the magnitude of the moment,” said Doreen. “Someone believes (in you) and that’s step one. And now you have to make good on that belief.”

So Ryan Kelly went to work.

It was tough going at first, as he underwent a foot procedure to fix an injury that dogged him at Duke. Then Kelly waited and did his best to be patient as the Lakers took a conservative approach to his rehab. He understood the team’s desire to protect its investment, but that didn’t make it easier. Kelly wanted to take a thousand shots a day in training camp. He wanted to hone his game. He wanted to use the preseason to adjust to the frenetic pace of play. Instead he waited and watched.

After appearing in only two of the Lakers’ first nine games, Kelly was sent to the LA D-Fenders of the D-League, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The move helped him find his legs and work on his game, and also proved to the Lakers that he was not only healthy but far too good to be in the D-League, where he averaged 25 points, eight rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals in five games.

“I had to work my butt off because I came into training camp, the doctors had held me out for a while,” Ryan Kelly said. “I didn’t even get to start at the beginning of training camp. Once I got my chance to go out there and play I had to perform and earn a spot.”

Doreen Kelly puts it much more simply: “Produce or perish.”

‘Do you have the courage?’

Recalled to the Lakers in early December, Kelly was in the NBA to stay. And as the Lakers’ injuries piled up, opportunities slowly began to present themselves. On Christmas Day, with his parents in attendance at Staples Center, Kelly played 17 minutes against the Miami Heat and was tasked with guarding LeBron James for a stretch of the game.

His big moment came on Jan. 17 in Boston: 34 minutes, 20 points and a pair of 3-pointers in a win over the hated Celtics. That earned Kelly his first career start two days later in Toronto, and he came through with 17 points and five rebounds in another victory.

“You can’t be afraid, and we saw that from Ryan this year,” Doreen Kelly said. “Are you prepared to step in the moment when the moment presents itself? Do you have the courage? Do you have the self-discipline?”

From the Boston game on, Kelly played in 42 games — starting 25 of them – averaging 9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and nearly a block a game. When opportunity presented itself, Kelly was ready.

But if you think he’s happy with where he’s at, think again.

‘Make the statement that you belong’

The critics said Ryan Kelly wasn’t athletic enough for the NBA. They said he lacked strength and explosiveness. They said he couldn’t rebound or defend. They said he was little more than a stand-still shooter.

In a topsy-turvy rookie season, Kelly has forced those critics to re-evaluate.

“We felt really excited for Ryan to perhaps alleviate in some peoples’ minds any doubt they may have had with the (draft) pick,” Doreen Kelly said. “He’s young. We were proud to see him battle through that and grow. Make the statement that you belong. You compete and support the organization.”

Kelly is a restricted free agent and it seems likely the Lakers will bring him back next season. But there will be a new coach, a new system and potentially several new teammates (only Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre are currently under contract).

Despite his solid rookie season, Kelly knows there is uncertainty ahead. But you can bet he won’t be making any assumptions. You can bet he’ll be prepared for whatever comes his way. That’s just how the Kellys operate.

“He’ll be the first to tell you he’s got a long way to go,” Doreen Kelly said. “There’s not an entitlement that ‘I’ve arrived.’ Now (he knows) there is a lot of work to be done.”

Produce or perish.


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