PITTSBURGH — In junior year of high school, an opposing player got a rude introduction to Amari Kelly when his layup was blocked with both hands off the backboard.
While the opposing player appeared to be in disbelief, Kelly moved on to the next play.
“It was a pretty wild reaction in that gym,” Kelly recalled.
Now, Kelly is a freshman at Duquesne and incrementally has been able to gain confidence which he believes clearly shines on the court.
“It has been a very humbling process because I was expecting to come in and not be a starter or anything but come in and get big minutes,” said Kelly. “It was humbling the first couple of games not playing as much. I had to sit back and re-evaluate myself, stay the course and be better.”
As is the case with most freshman, Kelly’s biggest adjustment has been just adjusting to the pace which comes with college basketball.
“I think I am learning the system well and starting to find easier spots to score on offense, while knowing where I am supposed to be on defense,” he said. “You can see it is helping my game and that I look a lot more confident out there.”
Kelly did not see any time in Duquesne’s season-opening game against William & Mary and Dambrot cited he along with two others who were in a similar situation were close to or at the same level but it was tough to get everyone on the court.
In Duquesne’s next three games which came against UIC, Radford and Notre Dame, Kelly did see the court but played limited minutes.
It was before the team’s Nov. 25 contest with UMass Lowell when Dambrot made a decision, his freshman could only grow with playing time and while there may be some growing pains on the court, it was ultimately what was best for the team in the long run.
In the two games that have followed since that decision, Kelly has recorded double-digit minute totals.
“That sends me a big message because he is showing me that I am earning minutes and that he wants to put me out there,” said Kelly. “I want to come in and learn as much as possible and for me, the best way to excel is to be out there and play. I am happy that my coach is letting me learn out here and letting me play instead of sit. I’ve taken that and run with it and hope to add more minutes on top of that.”
After that UMass Lowell game, Kelly’s performance caught teammate Michael Hughes’s eye and the latter singled his fellow post player out in the postgame press conference giving him credit for giving Duquesne a lift.
“With the freshmen, it is more about catching that confidence,” said Hughes. “They are not used to the pace of college basketball, that comes with time. Now he is getting ahold of the pace he knows how to make those effort plays and rebound. As his minutes and experience expand, he will continue to play better.”
Kelly has earned these minutes because of the impact he has made. In the UMass Lowell game, Kelly played 10 minutes and grabbed six rebounds and added three blocks.
“I’ve always been a really big shot blocker and always wanted to be disruptive on the defensive end,” he said. “I kind of picked it up. In eighth grade, I was averaging 7 blocks a game and carried it over to high school and averaged 4-5 blocks and now I am trying to carry it over to college.”
Kelly’s block total only increased five days later against Pitt when he recorded four swats.
“Amari blocked four shots in an ACC game, think about it,” Dambrot said. “That means you are a high-level shot blocker. I don’t care what anybody says, he has the ability to make plays around the rim.”
What perhaps makes the four blocks more eye-popping was that Kelly was playing out of position. With Marcus Weathers missing the City Game due to the flu, many of Duquesne’s posts had to switch over to play the designated “four”, which Kelly did not cite as much of a problem since he explained this is where the coaching staff projects him to play down the line as his collegiate career continues.
One improvement Kelly has been trying to improve is one which often plagues freshmen, fouling. Kelly picked up four fouls in 10 minutes against UMass Lowell and fouled out in 11 minutes against Pitt.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” said Kelly. “I thought in college that you could be a little more physical, but they’ve really toned it down. I am trying to learn how to be aggressive but disciplined on defense and not foul. I have to make smarter decisions.”
One thing Kelly does not have to work on is his faith in this coaching staff. Kelly clearly has a belief in what is being done at Duquesne. His current situation is one where he feels there is room to develop.
With Kelly progressing at Duquesne, he has set personal goals which continue to drive him. Kelly cited two goals, with one being earning a spot in the starting lineup, and the other being making the Atlantic 10 All-Freshmen Team.
As Kelly works to achieve those goals, he consistently goes back to one piece of knowledge he has kept throughout his basketball career.
“Go hard,” he said. “I might not be doing well on offense but working hard defensively will keep me on the court. Rebounding will keep me on the court. I want to do everything I can to help the team win and not focus on my stats.”