WATERLOO — Cedar Valley CourtKings guard Raijon Kelly can be a bit of a risk taker.
Whether it’s walking away from an accomplished Division I career before his senior season or trying exotic cuisine in a foreign part of the world, Kelly says he’s always been willing to walk off the beaten path.
And though there have been some bumps along the way, the St. Paul, Minn., native says that approach has helped put him in some great situations, including his current stay in the Cedar Valley, where he and his teammates are closing in on a perfect season.
Aspiring to play professional basketball since childhood, Kelly had a leg up from the start. His grandfather Arvesta Kelly played four years in the ABA and was a member of the 1968 Pittsburgh Pipers, who won a championship in the league’s inaugural season.
“He pretty much nurtured my game to what it is now,” Raijon said of his grandfather. “You have a field you want to get into and when you have someone in your family that lived it, it’s kind of hard not to seek advice from them as much as possible.”
Arvesta’s mentoring eventually helped Raijon catch on with Division I Samford, where he quickly established himself as one of the top point guards in the Southern Conference.
As a sophomore, Kelly dished out a then-program record 151 assists and in the process became the first Bulldog player to earn first-team All Southern Conference honors in 2013.
Unfortunately, his individual accolades didn’t result in many wins. In three seasons, Kelly’s Samford teams went just 35-60 and by his senior year, he was in line to play for his third different head coach.
Hoping to experience a winning season before leaving college, Kelly elected to transfer and found what he was looking for at Division II Angelo State. In his one year there, he averaged 10.1 points and 3.2 assists, helping the Rams capture a school record 28 wins in 2014-15.
The move proved to be a win-win, as Kelly was able to achieve team success while also staying on the radar of professional squads, despite playing down a division his senior year. And when given his first opportunity, any concerns that Kelly wouldn’t be able to thrive at the next level were quickly laid to rest.
He began his pro career with a bang, averaging 29 points and 6.1 assists in 11 games with Groupe E Academie Fribourg of the National Basketball League of Switzerland in 2106. He followed that up with a stint in the National Basketball League of Lithuania, where he put up 12.2 points and 2.9 assists in 19 games with Naglis Palangos.
Aside from living his dream of playing professionally, Kelly said experiencing life in other parts of the world broadened his horizons and allowed him to grow in ways he wouldn’t have been able to living stateside.
“I think (playing overseas) is a great experience for anybody,” he said. “You get to form an independence, play the game you love, try new food, you meet new people and try to learn different languages. You put yourself in the countries by yourself and hope for the best.”
Of all the challenges he faced overseas, Kelly says getting used to the different foods was perhaps the biggest.
“I’ve eaten horse steak, ostrich, rabbit, all kinds of things,” he said. “I’d never eat a horse steak in the states, but it was interesting.”
Aside from returning to his regular dietary habits, Kelly is also using his time back in America to follow other passions. Currently, he spends his weekdays working with the city of St. Paul, maintaining area parks and athletic fields.
“You live somewhere your whole life, you kind of want to take care of it,” he said. “I don’t have a million dollars to give away so I have to help out any way I can.”
He’s also keeping himself fresh on the basketball court as he awaits his next overseas opportunity.
The CourtKings have steamrolled through the Midwest Basketball League this season and Kelly’s a big reason why. He’s averaging 16.4 points, 6 rebounds and 3.2 assists on a 13-0 team that is winning by more than 22 points on average.
“He’s a guy that’s been a great leader from the start,” CourtKings coach Michael Mohlis said. “He’s not afraid to tell guys what they’re doing wrong and what they need to improve on. He understands the game very well from a defensive and offensive standpoint.”
One reason Kelly thrived so quickly in a leadership role is his preexisting relationships with some of his teammates. He’s been friends with forward Marvin Singleton since sixth grade and is also close with fellow Minnesota native and first-year CourtKing David Stanley.
With those relationships opening the door, Kelly’s bond with the rest of the team developed almost immediately. And though “winning obviously helps,” he says the organization’s unified front has made the dominant season all the more enjoyable.
In fact, it seems that with or without a league title, almost everyone in the locker room will be sad to see the 2017 campaign end
“I feel like I’m in college again when you’re with your buddies every weekend,” Kelly said. “We hang out, we get to talk basketball with fans. I’m having so much fun doing this. I’ve made some friends for life”