With severe injuries causing the likes of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and others to be down for the count, the Los Angeles Lakers have had to look in unique directions for talented players to step in and fill existent voids.
In recent weeks, the Lakers have received a boost from the likes of D-League alumni Kendall Marshall (Delaware 87ers) and Manny Harris (Los Angeles D-Fenders) following initial call-ups. The impact of the NBADL on the team's season thus far has been most evident, but in fact, it was one of the Lakers' own who first set the tone and demonstrated the importance of the minor league earlier in the campaign.
Rookie Ryan Kelly was behind the curve following an injury that hampered him throughout NBA Summer League and even the preseason. Still, as the Lakers continue to deal with a multitude of other injuries to key players on the roster, it's increasingly clear that even a second rounder like Kelly will have to be counted on to step up in the clutch.
With that in mind, Los Angeles assigned him to the NBADL-affiliated D-Fenders to help better prepare Kelly to embrace such a role in the NBA so soon. It was there that the forward thrived, averaging 25.2 points, 7.6 boards, 3.8 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.4 blocks through five December contests. Despite his ability to stuff up the stat-sheet, however, Kelly's assignment was about much more than just that.
"The unique thing with Ryan is that he had injuries last year, so he wasn't able to participate in the Lakers' training camp," D-Fenders' head coach Bob MacKinnon told RidiculousUpside.com during a recent conversation. "When he got assigned to us, that was more or less his camp. What he needed to do was get the rust off, get out there, and just play."
Further explaining how the minor league affiliate played a role in Kelly's rehab of sorts, Coach MacKinnon said, "The unique thing about the D-League is that when you're in practice, there are only 10 or 11 other guys. So you're getting every rep. You don't get subbed out, so I think that sped up his process."
The veteran coach added, "When Ryan came in with us, he was out of shape and a little rusty. I think he was able to get rid of some of that and just concentrate on improving. With the access that Lakers' coach Mike D'Antoni has given me and my staff, we've been able to run all of their stuff with regard to Coach D'Antoni's system. Because of that, Ryan was just able to focus on getting better and not worry about new terminology."
Coach MacKinnon said that the communication between the Lakers and D-Fenders has been great, and praised Coach D'Antoni while expressing gratitude to the entire big league staff. He said, "There's an understanding anytime a Laker gets assigned to us, what we should do or what we have to work on. Coach D'Antoni has come down to watch us play and scout our players. All of his assistants have been to our practices and seen us play, so there's great synergy there."
Uniquely enough, the D-Fenders are the only D-League team in all of the minor league to share a practice facility with its NBA affiliate. Surely, this made the transition of an assignment a seamless and minimal one for a player like Kelly.
With this in mind, Coach MacKinnon asserted, "It's a great advantage. Some teams are three hours away. Shoot, we're only three minutes away. All you have to do is walk down the hall to watch us. "
Since returning to the Lakers, Kelly is making strides and continues to make gradual progress. While his defensive instincts may still be a little suspect, that's to be expected from a young player in his position. Still, he's learning how to be a more physical player and use fouls effectively. On the offensive end, he's so far shown flashes of being the type of stretch four who's ideal for Coach Mike D'Antoni's system. Since January 15th, Kelly has averaged 12.2 points (on 51% from the field and 35% from deep) and 4.5 rebounds.
Much of Kelly's recent success can be attributed to his increasing comfort level due to his time in the D-Fenders. But moreover, however, his ability to get the most out of such an assignment stemmed largely in part from his positive attitude upon arrival, D-Fenders' General Manager Nick Mazzella told RidiculousUpside.com.
"With Ryan missing NBA Summer League and most of NBA preseason with a foot injury, the Lakers found value in sending him to the D-Fenders," the executive said. "The great thing about Ryan was that he came in with a great attitude about it. He wanted to play, and was excited to do so. He truly wanted to get his reps in. Playing and practicing with us really seemed to help him get into rhythm."
As the Lakers aim to stay afloat without key players like Bryant, Nash, and co., they assumedly hope young guns such as Kelly, Marshall, and Harris can help the team find a positive rhythm of its own.