ALBANY — UAlbany headed into last offseason off six consecutive losses.
So, while some things outside of the Great Danes’ control certainly went wrong with injuries, head coach Will Brown knew his men’s basketball program had work to do.
Most notably, the team needed an infusion of athleticism and 1-on-1 scoring ability.
CJ Kelly, even as he’s still working back to 100% health following knee surgery last year, has shown he can provide both for the Great Danes through their 0-3 start. As the season goes along, Brown expects Kelly — whose father played with Brown in college — to look even better.
“He’s used to finishing elbows above the rim,” Brown said of the 6-foot-5 wing from Long Island, “and he doesn’t have that explosiveness right now off the floor.”
Kelly started his college career at Norfolk State, then spent the 2019-20 academic year at Pratt Community College in Kansas along with Jamel Horton, who also transferred from Pratt to UAlbany ahead of this season. Kelly’s 2019-20 season, though, was derailed when he tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee, and his rehabilitation effort was made more difficult because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“He had major reconstructive knee surgery in December, and tried to rehab through a pandemic where — in March, April, May — a lot of places in New York where he’s from were closed,” Brown said.
After Tuesday’s game against Niagara, UAlbany’s third in four days, Kelly said he was a “little sore,” and the junior’s play did seem to suffer last Sunday when the Great Danes played on consecutive days. After scoring 10 points against UMBC in UAlbany’s opener Saturday, Kelly had zero points on 0 of 5 shooting in the next day’s rematch between the teams.
Then, Tuesday, Kelly offered 17 points on 6 of 10 shooting.
“I have zero concerns with CJ offensively,” Brown said. “I think CJ is a talented offensive player who is only scratching the surface.”
Brown has referred to Kelly several times as his team’s most talented offensive player — and that means something extra given Cameron Healy, a redshirt junior only 31 points away from 1,000 for his college career despite struggling with injuries late last season and so far during this one, still resides on UAlbany’s roster.
But Brown also has made clear that UAlbany needs more from Kelly than points. The newcomer’s defense needs to improve, and Kelly knows he needs to do more on the glass for a UAlbany team often playing smaller lineups this season.
“I’m looking at the stat line right now, and I only had two rebounds,” Kelly said after Tuesday’s game, then offered an “I’m 6-foot-5,” to show he knows that number needs to be better.
Brown, though, likes the initiative Kelly — whose sister Symone played at Siena — has shown in trying to work to be better. After a light workout Monday, Kelly stuck around and asked Brown to put him through a training session.
“Usually, they ask the assistants,” Brown said. “CJ actually came up to me and asked if I would work him out, 1 on 1.”
On the season, Kelly is averaging nine points per game on 37.5% shooting, while he’s made 44.4% of his attempts from 3-point range. With Healy limited in UAlbany’s first games, Kelly ranks third on the team in scoring behind graduate student Kellon Taylor (10.7) and junior Antonio Rizzuto (10.3).
UAlbany is next scheduled to play Jan. 2 at Vermont.