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The Journey of a Professional Basketball Player: From a Five Star Recruit to Playing Basketball Overseas

Today’s blog is a little bit different from most. Through connections of friends, I was able to interview Ryan Kelly. For those who don’t know, Ryan Kelly is a professional basketball player who played for the Los Angeles Lakers and now plays overseas in Japan.

This blog details Ryan Kelly’s journey from high school to college basketball to the NBA to playing overseas in Japan, and provides perspective to how an NBA player made it to the NBA. I hope you enjoy.

Basketball was always a big part of Ryan Kelly’s life. His dad played basketball at Yale University. The first time Ryan walked, he was holding a basketball in his hands. With that being said, basketball became his life in middle school. While growing faster than most kids his age, Kelly played JV basketball in 8th grade for Ravenscroft School, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

One of the reasons that Ryan Kelly made great strides in basketball at such a young age was his work ethic and mentality. Looking back, Kelly remarks, “In 7th or 8th grade, I had the mentality you just got to be in the gym a lot. You just got to work harder than other people, which means something.”

“I started going to the gym at 6:30 in the morning. I did that going into high school.”

The early work paid off, as Kelly made varsity his freshmen year. He was good, but he wasn’t necessarily considered elite. In his sophomore year of high school, he averaged 14.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per game. But what really launched Kelly onto the national stage was when he started playing AAU basketball. He was fortunate to land an amazing opportunity. He told me, “Going into high school, I started playing on an AAU team called D1 Sports. John Wall was my teammate.”

When asked the first time a college coach watched him play, he replied, “During the summer, the Ravenscroft team went to NC State camp, Wake Forest camp, that’s probably when coaches started watching me. Going into my junior year, I blew up as a prospect, and became a top 20 recruit.” With people taking note of the Ravenscroft power forward and watching him his junior year, Kelly averaged 23.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks, while leading his team to the #5 ranking in the state of North Carolina.

Ryan Kelly’s senior year was when the hype really came. He was named a McDonald’s All-American after averaging 25.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. His competition level increased during the season, as he played against Duke commit and future NBA player Mason Plumlee early in the season. Plumlee defeated him in this contest, and happened to be ranked five spots higher than Kelly in the class of 2009. They matched up again in the state championship. “They [Mason Plumlee’s team] beat us in the state championship in my senior year. Christ school had seven or eight D1 recruits on the roster.”

By the time his high school career was over, Ryan Kelly had broken 12 different school records, including points in a career, points in a season, rebounds in a career, rebounds in a season, and field goal percentage.” Kelly had multiple different scholarship offers, but when asked what his final list was, he said, “My final list of schools was Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and Georgetown.” Eventually, he committed to Duke, where his college basketball journey would begin.

A lot of people believe that NBA players only need one year of college or at a maximum two, or are ready for the league in high school but still have to go to college. While there are examples of this, this is not the majority. Ryan Kelly had to work his way up and spent four years at Duke University.

When looking back at his freshmen year, Kelly said, “First and foremost, I had to go through my first year, in terms of basketball, where I was truly disappointed in how my year went. Because I was a big recruit, and you think you’re going to play, and you look around, and I was a McDonald’s All-American, but they were all [McDonald’s All-Americans and] 2-3 years older than me.”

Ryan Kelly was a backup his first season at Duke, playing behind Kyle Singler, who would later play in the NBA for the Detroit Pistons and Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite winning an NCAA Championship his freshmen year, Kelly averaged 1.2 points per game. Not a phenomenal start for the #17 recruit.

Basketball isn’t all that you have to worry about in college. Academics matter a lot, especially to Ryan Kelly and his family. While majoring in public policy at Duke, Kelly noted how “you’re pretty lucky at Duke,” and that you have, “academic advisors who put together schedules based on what you want to do-you have to find a way to practice.”

“You have to have a good three hours at least [for practice]. Practice time would vary depending on our year, but would mostly be in the afternoon. Classes would be in the morning or mid-morning.”

During his sophomore year, Ryan Kelly played a bigger role as a Blue Devil, averaging 6.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game. Not NBA numbers, but much improved. As I mentioned earlier, Ryan Kelly has the mindset that you have to be in the gym, and so that is what he did. He worked on his game as much as he could, improving and improving.

The hard work paid off, as in his junior season, Coach K asked him to be team captain. Kelly obviously accepted, and went on to average 11.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.1 assists and blocks per game his junior season.

His senior season was when he really started to show up on NBA draft boards. But equally important to him and his family, he made the All ACC-Academic all four years at Duke. His senior season may have been the hardest for Ryan Kelly, as midway through the season, he broke his foot. This was a huge detriment to his draft stock, though he was luckily able to make a comeback. If teams viewed him as damaged goods, that all changed after a seemingly regular game against Miami.

Against the University of Miami, Ryan Kelly wasn’t even sure how much he was going to play. Coming off of his broken foot, and after practicing for just 45 minutes, Coach K decided that he was going to start his senior forward. Kelly was surprised, and while he missed his first shot, he “didn’t miss much after that.” Kelly finished with a grand total of 36 points, while draining seven 3’s.

Kelly’s draft stock increased significantly, and he finished the season averaging 12.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks on 45% shooting from the field and 42% from three. He declared for the 2013 NBA Draft.

The night of the NBA draft, Ryan Kelly was at home with friends and family, and remembers that, “We had about four TVs on with the draft, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I hoped I was going to get drafted, but I just remember that night, feeling like all my family and friends were there and I was so grateful for that, but I just wanted to be alone, to see what happened.” Eventually, Ryan Kelly was drafted 48th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers.

During his rookie season, Ryan Kelly averaged eight points, four rebounds, and two assists per game. Looking back, Kelly remarked, “I learned a lot from Mike D’Antoni, who coached the Lakers my rookie year. The game is different.” Kelly got to mentor under stars whose NBA careers were winding down, such as Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Steve Nash. Being able to learn from them is something that “I will always cherish,” Kelly told me.

When playing with Steve Nash once, Nash threw Kelly a behind the back pass, and Kelly decided not to shoot. Later he was told by his teammates, “If Steve Nash gives you a pass like that, you have to shoot.” He also learned a lot about preparation from the late and great Kobe Bryant. In a game against Charlotte in Kobe’s farewell season, Kelly found himself next to Bryant on the bench. According to Ryan Kelly, “He told me exactly the play Charlotte was going to run, and they ran it, just like he said.”

Ryan Kelly slams home a game winning dunk vs the Portland Trail Blazers

At the age of 24, the Lakers traded Ryan Kelly to the Atlanta Hawks, where he only played 16 games. After bouncing around a couple of different teams and was waived, Ryan Kelly decided to take his talents overseas for a short stint in Spain. This was followed by the B League in Japan, where he found much more success.

The B League was founded in 2015. There were two leagues in Japan until 2015, when they merged. In Japan, different sports have a different letter. The B League has the second longest basketball season in the world after the NBA, with 60 games. They have an All-Star Game and league MVP, but there are restrictions on how many foreigners can be on a pro basketball team, and how many can be on an All-Star team.

In the 2018-2019 season, Ryan Kelly averaged 20.1 points and 10.2 rebounds in 58 games, dominating like he never had before. The next season he would average 22 and seven, and the year after that 21 and six. Despite the incredible improvement from the Lakers and the much improved stats, Kelly has not yet been an All-Star.

When asked if he could speak Japanese, Kelly said, “Very little, enough to say hello, good morning, good night, or ask for a cup of water. I have an American coach who is good at Japanese himself and there are other people on his staff as well.” It is interesting to see the cultural difference of being a basketball player in Japan versus Los Angeles. In LA, Kelly was frequently recognized, as the Lakers are the A Team in Los Angeles (no offense Clippers). According to Kelly, in Japan, “More people are like, who’s this tall guy? If I’m on the train or walking around, you can see me over the crowd.”

I asked him, if you had to guess, which would be more fun to play in? The B League or the NBA? Ryan Kelly said, “The NBA is what I dreamed of. I certainly enjoyed my time playing in the NBA, but I was more of a role player. My best year was my rookie year, sort of like Micheal Carter-Williams. 

“Purely on the court, it’s a lot more fun to be in the B league and get to shoot a lot and have the ball in my hands more. I make a huge impact on winning or losing on the court. But there’s nothing quite like being in the NBA, living the life of chartered flights every game, but they both have their positives.”

As Kelly is making great strides overseas, there is no doubt in my mind that he’ll become an All-Star very soon. That is, once COVID gets under control. Leave a like if you enjoyed this type of blog, and make sure to pay attention to the B League and it’s new could-be star Ryan Kelly. Follow Ryan on Instagram or Twitter @RyanKelly34, don’t forget to follow the blog, and as always, have an awesome day!

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