Armed with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, NBA draft prospect Kylor Kelley finished his two-year collegiate career at Oregon State as the all-time leader in blocked shots (211). Kelley was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team twice and was among the top defensive players during his time with the Beavers.
But his journey to having a successful tenure at Oregon State was a bit unusual.
Kelley struggled academically in high school and received no Division I scholarship offers as a result. He attended Northwest Christian University before he was forced to transfer to Lane Community College due to his grades. From there, Kelley improved and eventually had the opportunity to play at Oregon State.
While the path Kelley took was a bit rocky, the 7-footer credits his journey to developing into the man he is today. Kelley recently sat down with Rookie Wire to discuss that path and navigating through the pre-draft process amid a global pandemic.
Please note this interview was minorly edited in its transcript for brevity and clarity.
What has your life been like since your season ended?
Once the Pac-12 Tournament got canceled, I started interviewing with a couple of agents. I have just been working out for the past six or seven months in the gym and also in the weight room. I’ve been in the gym pretty much non-stop and the weight room basically just trying to get bigger and stronger.
Do you feel like the extended break helped you train and prepare for the NBA draft a little bit better?
I think so but I also think that, and I’m not speaking for everybody, some might think that just because [the draft was] so far away they can take a little break before starting to train again but that wasn’t my mindset. Knowing where I came from [in Corvallis, Oregon], I gotta work harder than most of these guys.
You attended Northwest Christian and Lane Community College prior to transferring to Oregon State. What was that experience like going through that process and attending those schools?
It was my first year out of high school on my own, I wasn’t really mature going into college, mentally and physically. I feel like as I transferred over to Lane, I feel like that gave me the opportunity to improve mentally and physically as a person on and off of the court. I had to transfer because of grades and the coach gave me the opportunity to get my grades up. I felt like that’s what I needed: A reality check. That’s when Oregon State gave me the opportunity to play for them.
You said that was a reality check. Did that get you motivated to get everything in line and make that progress to get to where you wanted to be on and off the court?
Yeah, definitely. The reality check was what I needed to mature. I feel like when you only have one chance left and you look at it, you have to decide if you want to do it or not. I decided I did. It was my last chance so I went with it and took that chance.
How has your journey prepared you for transitioning to the next level?
I think it was definitely a journey, to say the least. A lot of people didn’t think I’d be in this position but that’s what makes it so sweet is all of the support I’ve been shown from family and friends. I feel like it’s getting me better on and off of the court. I feel with this journey I’ve had, it’s showed all the hard work that I’ve put in.
Do you ever look back at where you started versus where you are now and the progress you have made?
Definitely. High school, grades and my skills weren’t where they needed to be to go D-I so I had to wait. I feel like that position, that point in time, and looking at this point, all of that hard work I’ve put in with trainers and coaches in the gym really shows.
Following that point, you transfer over to Oregon State and become the school’s all-time shot blocker in just two seasons. When did you know you were good on the defensive end?
It started in high school. I mean, I was like 6-foot-10 at the end of my senior year. The tallest guy in our league was 6-foot-5 next to me so it was pretty easy to block shots. Then when once I got to the next level, I had to adjust. Even at NCU, I had to adjust to playing against college guys. It also benefitted me playing against the Oregon Ducks in scrimmage games and also being invited by Payton Pritchard to play in those open gyms against the guys and Tres Tinkle at Oregon State invited me to play a lot of times in open gyms. I feel like all of that made a difference playing against those athletic guys, playing above the rim and being able to block their shots really gave me confidence.
Growing up, which players did you try to model your game after?
A couple of guys I feel like I mirror my game after, or try to, at least. One of them, probably the biggest one is Rudy Gobert. That defensive anchor for his team, just talking to his guys. He’s like the backline, like the quarterback. I tried to do that with my team this last year and the year before. Then, probably, Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. His ability to run the floor, just like a deer. I tried to make those two strengths my best. I’d also say Kristaps Porzingis, his, length, height and athleticism.
You obviously blocked a lot of shots at Oregon State. Was there any that stick out to you as your favorite one?
I feel like there are a couple of chase-down blocks. I pride myself on getting back on defense using my motor to do that. There were one or two while people were trying to dunk on me. One of them was my junior year, Kevin Porter Jr. at USC. We won that game; I had a block to seal the game. I think the Kevin Porter one was my most favorite because I was able to block the game-winning layup and keep it inbounds for Stevie Thompson to pick up. I think that one was the smarter choice.
What was it like to earn Pac-12 All-Defensive Team honors each year at Oregon State?
It was a great honor to being named to those teams. I don’t think anybody really expected me to do what I did when I first got there. I feel like I earned that.
Moving ahead, what was the last month been like as the NBA draft approaches next week?
I have really just been focusing on it. I haven’t really done anything else besides working out. Doing a lot of lifting like I said but also a lot of running; trying to stay in shape.
How many teams have you interviewed with? What kind of feedback are you receiving from teams?
I have interviewed with about 13-14 teams. They have been saying my weight is an issue but I’ve gained about 15 pounds. I probably ended last year at 210 and now I’m 225. They have also been saying make your strengths your best so blocking shots and running the floor but also work on rebounding and stuff like that. But mostly just stay conditioned so you can run the floor and block shots.
In past years, players had the opportunity to go through in-person workouts, the NBA combine and other events. You’re a player that could have benefitted from something like that. What are some ways that you feel like you can make up that ground and impress teams?
I think I’ve improved on my shooting these couple of months. I think that the [G League combine] evaluation that will be sent to teams I think will surprise them, based on how well my shooting will show. I think that the game has definitely changed where bigs are needed to be able to stretch it out a little bit. I think that will come in the future but I think if I can show that I can shoot from the mid-range it would definitely boost my stock.
What has been the biggest surprise of this process non-COVID-related?
I’m coming from a small town. I’m just trying to show that I can do all the things that all these big-named guys can do.
We have seen a number of guys go undrafted or were second-rounders and find success, such as Duncan Robinson recently. Does that give you confidence knowing that it can be done?
I have seen a few guys start at a smaller school and work their way up. It really pushes me to work harder. Duncan Robinson, look where he is now from all the hard work he put in. That could be me in the future.
Do you have any special plans for the night of the draft?
I think we’re just going to have a little get-together with family and friends that are really close, the supports that I’ve had from my town.