Kelly Olynyk has been Jazz’s ‘connective tissue’ this season. Who will be that for the Jazz in the future?
There are some really obvious pieces that are needed when an NBA team is rebuilding, and the Utah Jazz’s rebuilding process has been sped up by some of those pieces having already been identified.
“Kelly is connective tissue. He definitely doesn’t get talked about enough … but he is a huge luxury for our staff.” — Jazz coach Will Hardy
You’ve got to have players who can score and you need defense. You can narrow those a little by saying that you need players who can space and create off the dribble, but you also need players who don’t need the ball in their hands to score. You need quick defenders who can keep up with the craftier players in the league, but you also need rim protection.
You also need star power — top options who will be leaders on the court. You need guys who keep the mood light when it’s needed in the locker room, you need players who will take a more serious tone when the moment calls for it.
Lauri Markkanen looks like he can be a No. 1 option or at very worst a No. 2 guy. Rookie Walker Kessler has proven himself as a rim protector in his first year and is the kind of defensive anchor you can build around. Collin Sexton is a lightning rod. Ochai Agbaji seems to be on the perfect development path to having an incredible 3-and-D career.
But you need more than that to make a team. There has to be depth and chemistry and role players and a mix of youth and wisdom.
And more often than not, you need someone who connects it all — someone who doesn’t require outside attention or accolades or a certain number of touches per game, but is a basketball jack of all trades who keeps things running smoothly.
Someone like Kelly Olynyk.
“Kelly is connective tissue,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “He definitely doesn’t get talked about enough … but he is a huge luxury for our staff. I know for a fact that if you guys go back and watch the games when Kelly was hurt this year and he didn’t play, like we missed Kelly very, very much. You felt it on the court, you felt that when you watched the film, and then he comes back and all of a sudden things all feel right again. And then we’re still not talking about Kelly.”
Ask any of his former coaches and they’ll say the same thing. He can do it all and he’ll do it without question. He hardly needs to be coached, he doesn’t need to be validated, he is whip smart and understands the game at a high level.
When Olynyk was traded from the Miami Heat to the Houston Rockets in 2021, he was with the Rockets for just the final 28 games of the season, but the impression he left on head coach Stephen Silas was notable.
“When we were really down as a group, he was a breath of fresh air coming in here and showing his professionalism,” Silas said of Olynyk. “He makes other people better when he’s on the basketball court because he’s such a good passer and he’s super unselfish. He’s skilled too where he can stretch the floor … and he’s a great teammate and a great person. So there’s a lot to love about Kelly. I don’t want to go on about him because he’s on the other team. But when he was here, he was just a joy to be around.”
From his game-winning floater over the New Orleans Pelicans early this season to his 40% shooting from 3-point land, from his consistency in production to his stamp of approval from Jordan Clarkson as being “one of the coolest guys I’ve met,” Olynyk is as versatile on the court as he is off of it.
He can change positions, switch between coverages and schemes, run sets from different spots, and he can do it all while staying effective, efficient and solid.
“Kelly is our Swiss Army knife on both ends of the floor,” Hardy said. “We’ve asked Kelly to do a lot of different things this year. We’ve asked him to guard a variety of positions, we’ve asked him to do a ton of different things offensively from space to screen to handle the ball to be a facilitator.”
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Olynyk has been all of the above and has done everything the Jazz have asked of him and he’s been that connective player for the Jazz through their rebuilding season. But the Jazz are going to need to have a player like that for the future — for the years when they are beyond rebuilding and are actively contending for a championship.
“Players of that caliber are massive in team composition,” Hardy said. “Just having a star player or two star players is not good enough to win anymore. You need connective tissue on your team. You need good role players when you play on the road and when you play in the playoffs.
“… We’ve seen so many examples of that in the last five-to-seven years of teams that have quote-unquote star power and then they’re not quite good enough and that’s not because those players aren’t great players. It’s because basketball is a team sport and you need those role players and the guys like Kelly to help pick up the weight in certain moments and hold the group together.”
Olynyk is currently under contract through next season (though his salary for the 2023-24 season is only partially guaranteed) but by the time next season comes to an end, Olynyk will be 33. That’s not to say he can’t still thrive as a role player at that point, but there’s no guarantee that he will choose to stay with the Jazz or that the Jazz will choose to move forward with him beyond his current deal.
The point to all of this is to say that while the Markkanens and Kesslers of the world are important, as will be any other star player the Jazz trade for or any high draft prospect they bring into the fold, there are other things that need to be considered with an equal amount of intention and with just as much importance.
Not everything is going to be a flashy, blockbuster move and not every player will make headlines with consistency throughout the season. But every team needs players like Olynyk, and this Jazz team is no different.