SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynyk's path from overlooked backup to college basketball's most improved player began more than a year ago with some hard-to-swallow advice from his head coach.
Unable to push his way into the Gonzaga starting lineup and unwilling to sit behind frontcourt standouts Robert Sacre and Elias Harris another year, Olynyk met with Mark Few after the 2010-11 season to discuss his future in the program. Olynyk was ready to explore potential transfer destinations, but Few urged the 7-footer to examine all his alternatives.
One option was leaving a school he otherwise enjoyed because of the frustration of playing less than 15 minutes a night. Another was staying at Gonzaga and trying to carve out a bigger role for himself off the bench. But the one Few recommended to Olynyk was showing patience, taking a redshirt year and improving his game so that he'd be in line to be the heir apparent to Sacre the following season.
"The coaches told me, 'If you transfer, you're going to have to take a redshirt year anyway so you might as well take that year here,'" Olynyk said. "Nobody wants to sit out. Everyone wants to play. So it was a tough decision. But when you look at it, I was playing behind two guys with NBA potential. There are only 80 minutes at the four and five spot. If they're taking 65 of them, there's no way I can play 30 minutes."
It took several months and numerous heart-to-heart chats with the coaches for Olynyk to accept that a redshirt year was the best way to jumpstart his stalled career, but he's now quick to say it was the correct decision. He spent the year adding upper body strength, improving his post moves and ramping up his conditioning, enabling him to not only crack Gonzaga's starting lineup this season but also emerge as an early contender for West Coast Conference player of the year.
Previously more comfortable shooting jump shots on the perimeter than attacking from the interior, Olynyk has embraced his role as a low-post scorer and finisher this season. He is shooting 67.5 percent from the field and averaging a team-high 17.1 points and 6.6 rebounds, with his best performances coinciding with some of Gonzaga's biggest wins.
He tallied 22 second-half points at Washington State last month to thwart the Cougars' upset bid. He lit up Big 12 contenders Oklahoma State and Baylor for twin 21-point outbursts. And in Gonzaga's most recent game, he scored 10 of his career high 33 points against Santa Clara in the final five minutes to send an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd at the Leavey Center home disappointed.
"He worked as hard as anyone I've ever been around in a redshirt year," assistant coach Donny Daniels said. "He put the time in and the effort in and you're seeing the results. He went into his redshirt year averaging 10, 15 minutes a game. Now he's a guy we can't take off the floor."
It's no surprise Olynyk blossomed late considering he's playing a role that's foreign to him.
A 6-foot-2 point guard during his first two years at South Kamloops High School in British Columbia, Olynyk sprouted seven inches over the course of his junior year and another couple as a senior. Nonetheless, he thrived on the perimeter even late in his high school career, which made for a rough transition when he arrived at Gonzaga and the coaches encouraged him to play more with his back to the basket.
"It was really tough for me when they said to go inside and go shoot jump hooks because I'd never done that before," Olynyk said. That's like telling a quarterback to go kick a field goal."
Even though the big men ahead of Olynyk in Gonzaga's rotation his first two years in the program were more experienced and more polished than him, he still wasn't satisfied playing sparingly off the bench. Friends and family back in British Columbia would ask him why he didn't receive more minutes every time he went home because they knew how dominant a scorer he could be.
In high school, Olynyk earned a spot on Canada's U-18 national team in 2008, led South Kamloops to a 36-2 record the following year as a senior and averaged 36.5 points and 15.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Olynyk then showed immense promise as the youngest member of Canada's senior national team for the 2010 World Championships, scoring 13 points against France and 14 against Spain and earning more playing time than Sacre, a fellow Canadian whose camp-under-the-rim style was ill-suited for the free-flowing international game.
When Olynyk returned to Gonzaga for his sophomore year after his experience with the Canadian national team, he figured earning consistent minutes would be no problem considering how well he fared against pros. Instead he sat behind Harris and Sacre again, averaging 5.8 points in 13.5 minutes per game on a Gonzaga team that lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"There were times my second year when I was really upset and I wanted to get out of here," Olynyk said. "You play at a high level against pros during the summer, and everyone is encouraging you. Then you come back and you lose all that. It's like it never happened. It was really tough going from that couple months of success and improvement to a decline. I wanted to play and I thought I could contribute."
Why did Olynyk choose to redshirt at Gonzaga rather than to transfer to another school with ample playing time available? He liked the community, he enjoyed his teammates and the coaches won him over with their plan for how they'd help him get the most out of the redshirt year by patching up the holes in his game.
It started in the weight room, where Olynyk worked diligently to build up his upper body so burly high-major big men could no longer out-muscle him for position. Olynyk also did plyometrics drills to improve his speed and agility and cut most greasy and fatty foods out of his diet to help increase his stamina.
On the court, the focus was his interior game. From rebounding drills, to practicing drop steps and jump hooks, to defending Sacre, Harris and Dower on the lower block every day in practice, Olynyk gradually became as comfortable in the paint as he was on the perimeter.
"He adjusted his game, quit settling for 3-pointers and became an all-around player," Few said. "He changed his body and he made himself better mentally. On the bench we treated him almost like an assistant coach. Seeing things from our perspective -- the frustration of not blocking our or walking through something at shootaround and not executing it -- that probably would be beneficial to all players."
Even though there were times when Olynyk was Gonzaga's best big man in practice last season, he was a forgotten man this offseason when analysts assessed Gonzaga's frontcourt strength. In a quartet of big men that included the all-conference Harris, the promising Dower and highly touted 7-foot freshman Przemek Karnowski, Olynyk was best known for his shoulder length hair and the colorful bow ties he wore on the sideline while sitting out games.
That isn't the case anymore after Olynyk's brilliant performance during Gonzaga's week-long road trip that concluded Saturday night. He averaged 23.3 points and 7.7 rebounds in victories at Oklahoma State, Pepperdine and Santa Clara, propelling the 15-1 Zags to the verge of cracking the top 10 in the polls.
In Saturday's 81-74 victory over the Broncos, Olynyk did a little bit of everything on offense, from sinking a 3-pointer, to scoring in the post, to playing a two-man game with fellow Canadian Kevin Pangos and creating off pick and rolls and pick and pops. At the end of the the game, after he'd bested his career high in points by 11, Olynyk took a few seconds to savor what he'd accomplished.
He flexed his muscles and screamed as the final buzzer sounded. He pointed to a friend in the stands holding an 'It's the Olynyk Clinic' sign as he jogged off the floor after a postgame TV interview. And he grinned from ear-to-ear when he swung open the door to the visiting locker room and his teammates greeted him with a thunderous roar.
"It's really gratifying," Olynyk said afterward. "After struggling the first couple years here and redshirting last year, it's good to see that the hard work I've put in has paid off. Anything you have to work for and that didn't come easy is that much more satisfying."