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Kelly Olynyk is Good

It’s safe referring to Kelly Olynyk’s recent play as “very impressive.” In his last 10 games, the rookie is averaging 12.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.0 block per game (in 22.2 minutes). He’s shooting—you might want to sit down for this—53.5% from the floor, 45% from the three-point line (on two attempts per game), and 83.3% on free-throws.

And since the All-Star break, the Celtics are scoring 4.7 more points per 100 possessions and allowing 3.8 fewer when Olynyk plays as opposed to when he sits.

It’s all fairly small sample size, but this isn’t about putting up unexpected, eye-popping numbers. He’s had a few 20-point games—flashing embryonic offensive skill every now and then—but this month Olynyk just looks better. He’s fluid, more aggressive, willing to take an open 18-footer or curl off a screen and pop in a three before his defender knows what the hell just happened—like…right here for example:

He’s still crashing the offensive glass and creating “ugly” opportunities for himself (his 13.6 offensive rebound rate over the past 10 games would tie the third best mark in the entire league), but we’re finally beginning to see consistent glimpses of an improving talent; the player Danny Ainge traded up in the draft to acquire. He’s taking defenders off the dribble, posting up with confidence, rotating on the back line like a seasoned veteran, and running the floor with purpose (that last point sounds cliché, but it can be damn near lethal for the defense when done consistently by a seven-footer).

Here he is mimicking what Jared Sullinger used to do earlier this season, racing up the court in transition and getting behind his man for a simple lob pass over the top.

Olynyk was drafted to become an offensive weapon, a stretch four who can drag opposing big men out to the three-point line and make undisciplined defenders pay by draining shot after shot when they stray. That part of his game is still developing (it doesn’t work until defenses start recognizing he can do it), but in the meantime Olynyk’s been able to impact other areas of the game.

He will never be an insane athlete, but he’ll always be large and coordinated, and over the past few weeks he’s used those two traits to his advantage on the defensive end. A few times every game you’ll now see him jump straight up in the restricted area (verticality!!) and contest a shot at the rim. Having someone who can do this consistently is an extremely valuable component in the NBA today, and it brings an entire new dynamic to Olynyk’s value as a two-way player.

Here he is switching out on Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, one of the league’s fastest players. All this is so much harder than it looks, and Olynyk does a fantastic job moving his feet and forcing the tough shot without fouling.

And look at this well-timed rotation from the weakside. It completely catches Dallas Mavericks guard Devin Harris by surprise.

Olynyk’s most “NBA ready” skill all season has been his passing. He understands angles and has enough precision to make a wide variety of passes from different locations all over the court. In the future, there’ no doubt that teams will be weary of doubling him in the post for this very reason. He has rare court vision, the type that’s popping up more and more in bigs across the league (Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, etc). Someday he might even allow Brad Stevens to run an inverted offense through him at the top; let him play quarterback as guards and wings whirl around and screen for each other below the free-throw line.

That’ll be fun stuff soon enough, but Olynyk’s prime attribute is his ability to score. Here, he’s blossoming. Look at this ATO (after time-out) play drawn up by Stevens against the Mavericks.

There was a brief stretch in this game when Olynyk was the best player on the floor. His aggression and intelligence were readily apparent on both ends, and most of it happened while he was guarding Dirk Nowitzki. Later on, Olynyk would take a charge on Nowitzki and blow by him for an and-1 layup.

Here’s another drive against the New Orleans Pelicans. Raise your hand if you thought he could make this move before he made it.

These drives might be the coolest part of Olynyk’s mid-season evolution. Whenever he’d catch a pass at the elbow a few months ago, he’d frantically look to pass. Two nights ago, against the Miami Heat, Olynyk bulled over Michael Beasley and Shane Battier on two separate plays. There was nothing fancy about either, all he did was make it look like no defender was standing between him and the rim, and he took the ball through them for a couple layups. (According to SportVu, Olynyk is averaging 1.0 drive per game and shooting 52.9% on them, which leads the Celtics.)

In his first week of NBA action, Olynyk literally looked like a blindfolded birthday boy wildly swinging his bat at a giant cat piñata. He had no clue where he was supposed to be on either end, who he was guarding or screening for; his movement was too rigid to function at the NBA level, and the look on his face resembled that of a little league pitcher who just got shelled in the first inning. There wasn’t any confidence.

Then…well, here’s the single moment that convinced me to write this column.

Olynyk steals the outlet pass, sees Nowitzki might have an angle to block his shot—or, at the very least, give him a hard “Hello, I’m Dirk. Who the hell are you?” foul—and dunks it. On the road. It was imposing, unafraid, and everything you want from a lottery pick. The play forever altered my view on what Olynyk was today and who he could become tomorrow. That sounds completely ridiculous, but it’s true.

Rookie of the Year is out of the question, but five years from Olynyk could easily be recognized as one of his draft class’ most complete players.

Michael Pina covers the NBA for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, Sports On Earth, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report, and The Classical. Find more of his writing here, and follow him @MichaelVPina.

  • High Rollers

    Bustin’ loose! Go KO!

  • Lex


  • hax

    Outside of shooting, name a skill that Dirk is straight up superior in comparison to KO.

    KO has surpassed Sullinger as our best PF. He’s better in every way except interior defense and offense. Sullinger is gaining -fat- weight, KO is gaining muscle weight. Sullinger has his head down while losing, puffing away like he’s on the verge of a heart attack after 1 minute of running. KO is smiling and having fun because he actually loves this game.

    Asik-Love with KO grabbing 20 mins off the bench backing up -both- guys is about as good as it can get.

    • Jonathan

      I wouldn’t be so quick to make that statement.Sullinger is still dealing with broken fingers, perhaps it’s affecting the way that he shoots, thus him having a lower shooting percentage? And KO’s defense has been subpar to say the least, although he could improve, much like Sully has this year.

  • JStokes

    Any compliments to KO’s defense are misleading. He might be the worst defensive big man in the league, improvements or no.

    BUT it’s a delight to watch him on offense. Great court vision, more consistent jumper. Wish his pick-setting was better, but for a rookie in this class, he has to be in the top 5, right? At least I’m more confident he can develop into a playoff rotation piece.

    • hax

      In the paint against 500 pound sasquatches, sure. His perimeter defense is one of the best for big men in the league. They don’t expect him to be able to speed infront of passes, and he gets a lot of pokeaways, and some steals.

  • Ping

    “Outside of shooting, name a skill that Dirk is straight up superior in comparison to KO.”

    Not to call you out at all Hax, let’s just be patient with KO. Dirk Nowitzki is the greatest international player ever. One of the ten best PFs ever. He ranks 19th ALL-TIME in PER. 10th all-time in win shares. He redefined the position as a 7-footer that has shot 38 3P% for his career. His defense, passing, and rebounding have always been underrated.

    KO definitely shows similar skills, but I’m going to hold off on calling him superior to Dirk.

    While he has looked fluid and confident, it’s still a small sample size. KO may definitely continue to improve with more minutes (especially with Rondo), but he also needs to do it against other starting units over the course of a full season.

    That said, it sure seems like all the criticism DA got over the Olynyk pick was a tad premature. I’m happy to watch Olynyk continue to prove many wrong.

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  • hydrofluoric

    Haven’t watched much C’s lately, but I follow every box score and I was extremely impressed by Kelly’s +/- in particular.