He’s one of Duke’s team captains, he’s the Blue Devils’ leading three-point shooter, and he’s underrated as a shut-down defender.
And for the foreseeable future, senior forward Ryan Kelly will be in street clothes, wearing a protective boot. Kelly suffered a right foot injury – the same foot that kept him out of the ACC and NCAA tournaments last season.
His absence causes a number of problems, big and small:
The team is less prepared for pressure.
“He’s usually the one inbounding the ball against the press,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Kelly missed the second half against Clemson. “We didn’t inbound the ball very well.”
Duke turned the ball over 10 times after Kelly went down to injury that game, after turning it over just three times in the first half.
The team is quieter.
“I’m going to have to be more vocal,” point guard Quinn Cook said. “Ryan’s very vocal, echoing calls, relaying messages from the coaches.”
Duke struggled with communication on defense last season, an issue that hasn’t cropped up as a problem yet this year.
However, the biggest impact of Kelly’s absence will be felt in the paint, where his combination of “stretch-four” size and shooting will be replaced by four players—three of whom are freshman.
“In that position, it’s not going to be just one guy. It’ll be by committee now,” said senior captain Mason Plumlee, who will be sharing the post with the quartet.
Junior Josh Hairston, and freshmen Marshall Plumlee, Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy have combined for 377 minutes this season, 47 fewer than Kelly has on his own. Their minutes will be going up significantly in the coming weeks.
“They have a big task ahead,” Cook said. “Ryan has big shoes to fill, but I think they’re ready. The big thing for us was everyone staying ready. We’ve been telling those guys to stay ready. Their opportunity will come.”
Like Kelly, Hairston’s defense is underrated. He leads the team in charges drawn, with eight—or two every 40 minutes. Kelly has five in nearly three times as many minutes.
“Obviously, we don’t have Ryan,” Mason Plumlee said. “Josh is a good defender. He’s really played big for us the last couple games, and his energy off the bench has been there.”
“We’re very young,” Hairston said. “After Mason and myself, we have Amile and Marshall, who are freshmen. They don’t really have the playing experience. So now I have to be able to be in shape, talk to those guys, and help them out. I think my strongest asset on this team is my defense, especially intensity-wise. I’ve been able to step over & take a lot of charges … My communication with Mason has grown this year.”
Intensity has never been a problem for Hairston, who unleashes screams on the court almost as often as he draws charges. Marshall Plumlee has made the most of his 12 minutes on the court by matching Hairston yell-for-yell. Amile Jefferson has sent slobber flying as he teamed with Quinn Cook early in the season to make the Blue Devils Team Chest Bump. Alex Murphy, who’s smaller and more of a slasher, may play a different position, but his desire is evident when he’s on the court.
That attitude was fine for each of them when they were coming off the bench to give a few frenzied minutes while a starter rested, but they’ll need to tone things down when they face the expanded role created by Kelly’s injury.
“I actually had a conversation with coach today, along with Amile and Marshall, about having to be smarter,” Hairston said. “He wasn’t calling us dumb or anything like that, but as far as our play -- to slow down a little bit. Before Ryan got hurt, when we stepped on the floor, what was expected of us was to bring intensity and hustle, to go 100 miles an hour, to play defense, and to make people work. Now with this injury we have to almost manage, especially with the foul situation, we have to be smarter. If Mason gets in foul trouble, it could easily be two of us on the floor. So he talked to us about not slowing down completely, but turning it down a couple notches to where we’re thinking before we move.”
The opportunity that each of the four players have waited for all season has finally arrived. Now it’s time to see which of them can seize it.