Kelly making progress for return to Duke lineup
Of all the good things No. 6 Duke showed on the court Thursday night while thrashing Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., the best news for the Blue Devils came off the court.
Ryan Kelly, Duke’s senior forward, watched the game from the bench in street clothes just as he has since he injured his right foot on Jan. 8 against Clemson. Only this time, Kelly wasn’t using crutches to get around.
Earlier this week, Duke’s doctors told Kelly to ditch them while still walking with a protective boot.
The move was the first significant sign of progress for the 6-11 Kelly, a key contributor on both ends of the court who has missed 11 games.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, in his strongest terms yet, that the team now knows it will have Kelly back this season. Previously, Krzyzewski couched his comments by saying he “hoped” to have Kelly back.
“Now we believe we’re going to get him back,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
With Kelly a fixture in the starting lineup, Duke won its first 15 games. He averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while making 52 percent of his 3-pointers.
Kelly scored in double figures in 13 of those games. That includes the game with Clemson at Cameron Indoor Stadium, when he scored 12 points but didn’t play after halftime. Late in the first half, Kelly attempted a jump shot but landed awkwardly, causing the damage to his right foot.
During the past six weeks, while using crutches and a boot, Kelly stayed away from weight-bearing situations on the foot. He has been receiving treatment from Duke’s medical staff and worked in a pool to stay limber and in shape.
On Wednesday, Krzyzewski said, Kelly ran for 15 minutes in the pool. He also shot free throws on the court.
“He’s doing a lot of physical stuff with his legs, his hips and his core with a medicine ball,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s sore, but his foot is not sore.”
Kelly will continue workouts in a pool to limit the pounding on his foot. The next step will be a return to practice, something that seems imminent.
“He hasn’t done basketball stuff yet,” Krzyzewski said. “Hopefully, he’ll get to that next week.”
Duke (23-3) has five regular-season games remaining, including a home game against ACC-leading Miami on March 2 and the regular-season finale at rival North Carolina on March 9.
Having had to mix Kyrie Irving back into the lineup in the NCAA Tournament two years ago after the point guard missed three months with a toe injury, Krzyzewski doesn’t want to repeat that experience.
“Our guys have done a good job of bringing him along,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not going to put any pressure on him to do it, but we’d like to see him get some activity before the NCAA Tournament.”
In Kelly’s absence, junior Josh Hairston and freshman Amile Jefferson split starting assignments at his forward position. Both got experience they wouldn’t have received if Kelly had not been injured.
The 6-7 Hairston, who averages 2.9 points and 2.2 rebounds for the season, appears to be thriving more than the younger Jefferson. Hairston has scored in double figures in Duke’s past two games, an 83-81 loss at Maryland this past Saturday and in Thursday’s 88-56 win at Virginia Tech.
Hairston had 11 points and three rebounds against the Hokies when he made 4 of 6 shots.
“Josh has been terrific,” Krzyzewski said. “He played like a true veteran (Thursday) night. The last three days in practice, I just think he’s really taken it up a notch. He’s playing more athletically and with a lot confidence, not that he hasn’t done a good job for us. But (Thursday), he played like he was a really good player, and he was.”