The ACC season didn’t get off to the dream start that Duke and its fans wanted. Sure, the Blue Devils are 2-0 headed into the long-awaited matchup with preseason favorite NC State, but they will be doing so without the services of senior forward Ryan Kelly.
Kelly, who is out indefinitely after picking up a foot injury against Clemson, will be in street clothes when the Blue Devils meet the No. 20 Wolfpack on Saturday and that means more than many would think. At face value, Kelly is a stretch four who gives teams fits with his range and the way he fills multiple roles on the offensive end of the court. But when talking about how important Kelly is to Duke your eyes have to turn to the defensive end of the court.
He is far from the most athletic guy you will ever see play college basketball. But Kelly uses what he has to give opponents fits and what he has is a knack for coming up with momentum changing plays with blocks and steals — not something in the job description for most power forwards. NC State boasts a frontline that is big, fast and tailored to Kelly’s defensive style.
On the season, Kelly is fourth on the team in steals (11) and second on the team in blocks (24) for a combined 35 “stocks” (to borrow a term from Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball). This number is a good indicator of the impact a player has defensively and fleshes out how important they are on that end of the court. Kelly’s 35 “stocks” is first on the team and he is the only player with double digits in both categories.
How accurate is this number? Well, according to college basketball reference’s “defensive win shares” state — which estimates how many wins a player adds with his defense — Kelly’s defense is good for 1.6 wins, ranking just behind Mason Plumlee (2.2) for second on the team.
Theoretically, Kelly’s absence makes Duke about 18 percent worse defensively. Not good news with C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and T.J. Warren coming up on Saturday.
Now, let’s get back to why this is the worst possible game for Kelly to miss. Besides the obvious fact that this will be the best ACC competition they face, the Wolfpack boast a front line that has been giving team fits all season and Kelly’s injury takes away one of the Blue Devils rarest commodities: size.
In all likelihood, Kelly would spend most of his time guarding Leslie with Plumlee taking care of Howell and Rasheed Sulaimon dealing with Warren. Ignoring just how scary that third part is, Kelly would be the perfect foil for Leslie because he is fast enough to handle him when he faces up but still strong enough to guard him in the post. Also, Leslie is averaging 2.9 turnovers per game and would likely find himself empty handed at least two or three times with Kelly guarding him.
With Kelly out though, the matchup shifts dramatically in the Wolfpack’s favor. Whether it’s Josh Hairston, Alex Murphy or Amile Jefferson playing in his stead, all three players will have their hands full dealing with Leslie inside.
Ryan Kelly’s outside shooting will be missed. But with NC State the team on the horizon, the biggest impact will be felt on defense.
Jimmy Kelley is the founder and lead writer for Devils in Durham. Follow him on Twitter @jp_kelley