Buck the trend: Andre Kelly has crafted a career embracing change

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Davíd Rodríguez/Senior Staff

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The shot clanks off iron, and the biggest kid on the floor collects the rebound. Convention says that this player, standing at 6’8” and weighing in about 260 pounds, should hand it off to a point guard or zoom an outlet pass up the floor to start the fast break.

But convention be damned. He puts the ball on the floor and begins to generate a full head of steam. With every step, the kinetic energy of this freight train grows larger. Trying to stop him is a fool’s errand.

As the rim becomes closer and closer in his sights, the man amongst boys begins to decelerate. His presence has forced the defense’s hand. They zigged. He zagged.

He transforms his body from a tank to a Maserati. In one dribble, he shifts his speed, slips through the cracks, finds the daylight and elegantly lays the ball up with a feathery, soft touch.

This tantalizing combination of size and skill may shock the casual observer, but for Andre Kelly, sequences as such have become the norm.

Kelly’s unconventionality as a player was what made him such an attractive prospect in high school, and it’s that same uniqueness that makes him the most intriguing hooper of Cal’s incoming class.

For all the praises sung about his dedication and proficiency in the classroom, Kelly wasn’t the latest prepubescent sensation to transcend secondary school and cannonball straight into the galaxy of elite institutions. But on the court, he was Lincoln High School’s valedictorian in the art of hooping.

With a frame of 6’6”, 220 pounds as a high school freshman, Kelly was a giant amongst ants. Against first-year students who might not even crack a buck fifty soaking wet, Kelly dominated.

“He started on the freshman team, and then just all of a sudden, he was a rebounding machine,” said high school head coach Gary Greeno. “He could just do so many things so well.”

Kelly was cooking fellow freshmen with a combination of different spices, scoring more than 200 points in his first 10 games on the freshman team. But barbecue chicken can only be on the menu so many times before the craving for another taste emerges.

Because of a combination of necessity and desire, Kelly was moved all the way up to the big show, becoming the first freshman in school history to play on varsity. But the move would not come without caution.

His parents shared a concern that the jump would be premature and not advantageous to Kelly’s development. Greeno, Kelly and his parents flushed out all the details of what moving up to varsity would entail. They reached a consensus that Kelly was ready.

“[Greeno] really tried to push Andre but, at the same time, help him to develop as a person and individual,” said Guadalupe Kelly, Andre’s mother.

Kelly’s unprecedented promotion catalyzed the most prolific career in Lincoln history. While some of his varsity teammates may have been skeptical about the decision to bring up the youngster, Kelly let his play prove that he was worthy of hanging with the big boys. In his first home game, Kelly put his name on notice with the student section.

“I was kinda nervous at first, but I think I had a block, then I scored two buckets in a row, and the crowd was like, ‘He’s a fresh-man!’ ” Kelly said. “I settled into it.”

By the time his junior year rolled around, Kelly was setting fire to Lincoln’s record books, setting the school record for points and rebounds in a season en route to winning 2017 Stockton Record’s All-Area Player of the Year.

Davíd Rodríguez/Senior Staff

Davíd Rodríguez/Senior Staff

Lincoln doesn’t have the jerseys of any former players hanging in the rafters, but Kelly isn’t against the idea of seeing his name immortalized.

“I don’t think we have a jersey retired, so that’d be sick if we did it,” Kelly said with a huge smile.

Much of Kelly’s success during high school could be attributed to his relatively unique playstyle.

“I wanted to show that I was different and that I wasn’t a big who was just in the post,” Kelly said.

Kelly falls under the category of “point forward,” a title given to small and power “forwards” who can handle the ball and orchestrate the offense like a “point” guard. With his frame, Kelly fits the bill of a power forward but doesn’t confine himself to merely working amongst the trees.

“A lot of big men his size are really clumsy,” said childhood friend and former teammate Josh Bratcher. “I think Andre does really well going coast to coast and his handle and his jump shot. It’s an all really well-rounded game.”

One of the numerous YouTube mixtapes that feature highlights of Kelly compared him to Draymond Green, one of the NBA’s elite point forwards, but Andre’s father, Gerard, believes his son’s ceiling extends higher than the Michigan State alumnus.

“I love the comparison to Draymond. I think actually Andre is going to be a little stronger and better,” Gerard said before bursting out laughing.

Part of Kelly’s evolution as a basketball player was the product of him playing against much older competition. When the players were just as big as he was, relying on other aspects of the game became Kelly’s only option if he wanted to hang. Success may not have come as easily, but banging bodies with older competition proved to be instrumental in the long run.

“At the end of the day, when I’m playing against (older competition), I might not be doing as well as I may be doing playing against (competition my age), but it really helped me to push myself and become a better basketball player,” Kelly says.

Competing against more mature players does not automatically translate into improvement. While it certainly helped, Kelly’s father had the foresight to push him to develop other areas of his game.

A former player in college before an injury derailed his career, Gerard admits that back in his heyday, he depended on his physical tools opposed to mastering the fundamentals. To make sure Andre had a well-rounded game, Gerard pushed his son to become a Swiss army knife.

When possible, they’d watch film together and break down the finer details. These film sessions weren’t refined to the X’s and O’s of basketball and would expand to the larger game of life.

As most teenagers and parents will admit, there’s a very prevalent generational divide between the two sides. Finding ways to communicate can be challenging, but basketball was the means through which they could find common ground.

“It would start with that, and then it would lead to school and then all these other things,” Gerard said. “It was just another way to interact with my son and pick his brain.”

The function of these film sessions wasn’t to just help Andre develop as a player. Rather, these moments served as a reminder that Andre had a support system in his father.

Gerard admits that after his injury, he didn’t push himself enough to fully recover to his former glory or pursue other avenues outside of playing, decisions that still haunt him.

“Not having someone to talk to and keep you going and keep you motivated when you’re younger, you kinda fall into a little depression, and I think that’s what happened with me,” Gerard said. “It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, and I still regret that.”

Gerard wanted to ensure that when Andre pursued basketball, the love was always there. Whether that meant teaching him other intricacies of the game or just being in the bleachers, Gerard wanted to offer what he, himself, did not have.

“Not having someone to work with you or push you or do those things — it was very important to me to guide him,” Gerard said.

“He really pushed me,” Andre said of his father. “He’s one of the major reasons why I’m here today and why I’m at the level I’m at.”

All of this has finally brought Kelly to familiar territory in Berkeley, one of his dream schools from an early age. Years after being that kid in the stands of Memorial Stadium and falling in love with the institution, Kelly will now have the responsibility of helping write the next chapter of Cal basketball.

Alongside the youngest roster in the Pac-12, Kelly will be thrust right into the fire. Points won’t be easy to come by, and every rebound will be a dogfight.

Cal’s hopes for a successful season partly rest on his shoulders, but as someone who grew up idolizing the Bears, Kelly is excited for what’s to come.

“To be honest, I got the offer and was like ‘I’m gonna be a millionaire — I’m going to Cal,’ ” Kelly said. “I was really excited about it.”

Whether Kelly becomes a millionaire or not is yet to be seen, but the tools he brings to the table will be worth their weight in gold.

He’s bucked conventionality before. Time will tell if he can do it again and help usher in a new era of prosperity.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.