Ryan Kelly wasn't expected to be in this situation. He wasn't even a lock to make the team as a second-round pick. But here he was at Boston on Friday, Jan. 17, making key plays down the stretch in a close ballgame.
With the Lakers leading 105-104 with less than 10 seconds left, Kelly had a chance to clinch the game at the charity stripe.
His two made free throws gave him 12 points in the final quarter, which capped a career 20-point night for the rookie. In the process, he helped snap L.A.'s six-game losing skid.
Kelly's reward: chocolate milk. According to Lakers strength and conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco, the 6-foot-11 forward loves drinking a low-sugar chocolate milk high in good fats now that he's seeing significant court time.
"There's a time and place to utilize carbohydrates and maybe a few sugars," he explained. "For specific reasons, that helps the body to replenish and trigger cascades of hormone release that result in lean mass building. The time to do that is after very vigorous exercise. He's getting all the extra work, so his body needs it and it's the perfect time to do it."
Kelly made his first career start at Toronto the following game and responded with another 17 points and five rebounds in the Lakers 112-106 win. He became the first rookie since Kobe Bryant in March 1997 to record two straight games of at least 17 points.
"He does two or three things that we would like everybody to do," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He battles, he's smart and he makes shots. He will just keep getting better."
Pau Gasol echoed similar sentiments about Kelly, who has started the last two games alongside the 7-foot Spaniard.
"He is playing really well," Gasol said. He is really playing with poise, making big plays and taking advantage of the opportunity."
That opportunity for Kelly, however, had been a process until this point. He was sidelined the entire summer and nearly all of preseason after having surgery on his right foot in early April while still a senior at Duke. He was expected to miss 12 weeks. Instead he missed more than six months.
"Everybody has their different path," he said. "For me, my season started a little late. I didn't have much of an opportunity to prove myself early. But I think just through my work ethic, through my willingness to be the first one here and the last one to leave and the fact that I've gotten better since I've gotten here, it's shown the coaching staff I can help us."
Even in the last couple months, Kelly's progress on and off the court has been evident, partly because he's gained his game rhythm back, partly because he's gained that confidence back. DiFrancesco believes all of that played a factor, plus his receptiveness to change his eating habits. Like many college students, Kelly consumed pizza and snack foods, downed juices and protein shakes high in sugar and made regular visits to local fast food restaurants.
Once drafted by the Lakers, all that changed.
While trying to get back on the court, Kelly immediately embraced what DiFrancesco and Director of Lakers PRO Nutrition Program, Dr. Cate Shanahan, introduced to him. The program, used by the team, stands for Performance, Recovery and Orthogenesis.
"Food is fuel and the right foods – healthy, saturated fats – are the best fuel for the body," DiFrancesco said. "Let's put the idea that food is fuel aside and understand food is medicine and Ryan grasped that immediately. He was in a position where grasping that and embracing that idea that food is medicine was easy. That was a small piece to the puzzle that allowed him to clear the hurdle."
Even though Kelly was cleared to play, minutes were hard to come by early. As such he was assigned to the Lakers D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders, on multiple occasions in late November and early December. He played five games with them, averaging 25.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals. It was his first extended game action since his senior year at Duke.
"It was a big step for me," he said. "It gave me confidence. To know you can produce against high-level talent – not that I didn't know that – but to do it again is always something positive and productive. When you step on the floor in the NBA, you have a little bit of swagger and confidence you've done this before."
During this whole process, Kelly continued to work, in the weight room with DiFrancesco, as well as with the player development coaches Larry Lewis and Mark Madsen. Coming in, Kelly was at 14 percent body fat, but now has dropped to 9.4 percent, adding five pounds of lean mass and functional muscle and losing 10 pounds of useless fat. Sugar and carbohydrates are a quick source of energy used by most people, according to DiFrancesco, but it's an inefficient source of energy long-term, which creates low-grade inflammation on your body. That's the types of food Kelly was tapping into for fueling purposes, rather than fats, specifically good fats from pasture- and grass-fed sources (i.e. beef from cows).
"Ryan was not in any dire straits or crazy rock bottom scenario, but like the majority of 20-year olds, their intake of sugar and processed, refined carbohydrates is higher than it should be or we want it to be," DiFrancesco said. "That typically goes hand-in-hand. Your body is addicted to having that food source in that amount. That goes back around to our grass-fed approach. Part of adding good fats is animal proteins from pasture- or grass-fed sources. Ryan grasped the whole thing immediately and he was willing to take the steps and follow through with them. It's absolutely no surprise to me that he's seeing the progress."
Lewis had high praise for Kelly regarding his development from when the team drafted him in June while coming off foot surgery, until this point, now that he is a key part of the regular rotation.
"Dedication," he said when describing what he's seen from Kelly. "He was patient enough to wait for his injury to heal the right way and not rush that part. So when he was able to come back, his mindset had a better tempo about it."
That patience has yielded results, in part because of Kelly's new diet, plus his work ethic. He enjoys eating pieces of bacon by the dozen now, something that is a good part of his diet, along with Alive and Radiant Cheezy Kale Chips, which have antioxidants, good for fighting inflammation. He drinks mostly water, but also likes coffee with organic butter. Kelly has felt the positive effects of changing his eating habits, and his play has shown. In the last three games (as of Jan. 22), he is averaging 16.7 points and 5.3 rebounds on 53.6 percent field goals.
"It takes some time, but I've started to feel the effects of having longer lasting energy," Kelly said. "We're about 36 games in (as of Jan. 9) and that's what the college season will be like. I haven't played as many minutes early (with the Lakers), but I was doing the D-League, and I feel fine. I think if I had been going down that same diet route I was, I probably would have been breaking down. I guess you can't say for sure, but that's what I'd venture to guess."