Like every rookie in NBA history, Kelly Olynyk will have to overcome a lot of obstacles in his career to be successful. He will have to find ways to adjust to his below-average length and athleticism. He will have to add muscle so he can impose his way down low. Even if he stays relatively lucky throughout his career, at some point, he will have to overcome injuries.
Ironically, however, one of the first obstacles Olynyk will have to overcome is his inability to be an obstacle.
Through four games, Olynyk has shown a variety of NBA skills which have even his most ardent doubters wondering if he can’t at least be serviceable in the league. But one area in which he has been noticeably deficient has been as a screener. Rather than setting solid screens, a staple in the ignition of the pick-and-roll, Olynyk has been sputtering — allowing defenders to navigate around him easily or, in some cases, run right through him.
The Celtics negated this particular flaw in Olynyk’s game against the Knicks on Saturday by running New York (or at least, a handful of scrubs wearing Knicks jerseys) out of the gym. But Boston won’t be able to push the pace on every single play this season, and Olynyk’s ability to screen for his ball-handlers will play role in the success of the half-court offense.
Or at least, it will play a role in the success….most of the time. Sometimes, the play develops on its own.
In this play, Olynyk’s screen is bad, but he is skilled enough to salvage it. Initially, Olynyk’s screen does literally nothing for Jordan Crawford. Not only does Olynyk fail to knock Pablo Prigioni off his course, Andrea Bargnani — who, incidentally, is known as a mediocre P&R defender — doesn’t have to commit to the hedge.
Since Bargs’ IDGAF defense is fine at this distance, he is able to recover easily enough to cut off any hope of a jumper from Olynyk.
Fortunately for the Celtics, Jared Sullinger started doing his work early on this play. While Olynyk was allowing Prigioni to circumvent him with ease, Sullinger stood inches from the low block. When Sullinger gets the pass from Crawford, Sullinger sticks one leg in between Josh Powell’s and establishes great position. Olynyk may not be much of a screener, but he’s an excellent passer. He feeds Sully, and Sully draws the foul.
Last season, the Celtics used hand-off screens to create penetration into the lane when Rondo went down. At that point, the ball-handling was a crapshoot of turnovers and mid-range jumpers, so using the bigs to force the ball into the lane was a solid play, and Brad Stevens seems to have picked up on that (more on that subject later this week). In this play, once again between Crawford and Olynyk, Olynyk is supposed to hand Crawford the ball while simultaneously picking off his man, which would allow Steez either a nice lane to the basket or a mismatch against Olynyk’s defender if the big man should switch.
Unfortunately, Olynyk’s screen doesn’t land.
It should be noted that on this play, the problem is twofold. First, Olynyk starts walking away from the play instead of setting a real screen. It’s not a slip, exactly, although a slip might have been effective given the way Crawford has been passing during the preseason. Instead, Olynyk just allows Crawford’s defender an easily lane over the screen.
Second, Crawford doesn’t round the pick well at all, backing away from the play and settling for a deep 3-pointer. Stevens has been encouraging the Celtics to take plenty of 3-pointers, but I would imagine his sets also call for better use and execution of screens.
Finally, with the Celtics leading by 15 at the beginning of the fourth, we saw a defender simply outmuscle Olynyk on the pick.
It starts with what appears to be simple miscommunication. Olynyk comes up to screen for Courtney Lee, but as he does so, Lee passes to Marshon Brooks. Olynyk could stay in position here, giving Lee a path down the middle of the lane, but he opts instead to go screen for Brooks. So far, Olynyk is making acceptable decisions.
For anyone still reading who can’t access videos at work, I’ll try to adequately capture Olynyk’s following pick in two screen caps.
Brooks’ defender, Toure’ Murry unless I’m mistaken, doesn’t have to navigate through Olynyk. Rather, he just fights through the screen as if Olynyk is only a semi-material being. Instead of giving Brooks a lane to drive through or a pull-up jumper to take, Olynyk’s screen doesn’t do much, and the Celtics settle for a 3-point attempt by Vitor Faverani.
The good news in all of this: Screening isn’t exactly a complicated process. If Olynyk was shying away from the contact, we would have cause for concern. The NBA is a big, physical place, and if Olynyk seemed like he was scared to get hit, his picks probably wouldn’t improve. But he has shown plenty of willingness to sacrifice his body on the other end, taking charges from guards and bigs alike, so physicality doesn’t seem to bother him.
As such, setting screens is simply a matter of becoming an obstacle. From what we’ve seen of Olynyk, he seems intelligent enough to figure out how to make it happen.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.