In the summer of 2010, I watched the Canadian men's senior basketball team play France at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. One of the bigs off the bench for Team Canada in that game was Kelly Olynyk, a 19-year-old who had just completed his freshman year at Gonzaga.
Had you told anyone in the shamefully small crowd that three years later the native of Toronto by way of Kamloops, B.C., would be a favourite for the John Wooden award as the top NCAA player -- and leading a No. 1-seeded Bulldogs squad into March Madness
-- you probably would have raised a few eyebrows.
Asked in January about Olynyk's game when he arrived in Spokane, Wash., in 2009, former Gonzaga teammate and fellow Canadian Robert Sacre recalled with a laugh: "He was like a big puppy. He was falling and stumbling everywhere."
To understand Olynyk's development as a player, you have to understand his development physically. Born into a hoops-crazy family (his father Ken coached at the University of Toronto and his mother Arlene was a scorekeeper for the Toronto Raptors), Olynyk played in the backcourt through childhood and adolescence until a seven-inch growth spurt between Grades 10 and 12 at South Kamloops Secondary.
Not unlike last year's No. 1 pick in the NBA draft Anthony Davis, who went through a similar height explosion in high school, Olynyk was forced to modify his game accordingly.
That's not always easy. However, people like Canadian men's senior team assistant general manager Rowan Barrett and Gonzaga coach Mark Few knew Olynyk had something and were neither prepared to simply dismiss him as another awkwardly proportioned big man nor categorize him as a "BAWG" (ie. Bill Simmons's classification for big awkward white guy.)
But after two seasons at Gonzaga without much to write home about, Olynyk red shirted last year and played on the scout team. It may have been a career move from a basketball standpoint.
"It was just a matter of getting his body up to speed," Few said during a conference call on Sunday night.
"[And] I think the red-shirt year really helped him mentally."'Prime for a breakout season
The result this season was 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game from the seven-footer. In addition, he vastly improved his stroke, both from the field and at the line. And there seems to be zero surprise about that from anyone who knows him.
"I don't think it happened all of a sudden," Few said. "He's positioned himself game-by-game over the course of the year [so] no, I'm not surprised.
"For long stretches, he was the best player on our scout team last year. And this fall, he was primed for a breakout season."
"I wasn't surprised," Sacre said in echoing the sentiment.
"Everybody has to go through transitions. Now he's grown into his body ... he has a post game now, so he's a load."
Barrett, Steve Nash's right-hand man with the national program, has been watching Olynyk for years. About a year after that France-Canada game in Toronto, he scored 19 points and pulled down 12 boards for the national team in an Olympic qualifying loss to Argentina. While Canada was manhandled in that game, Barrett knew Olynyk had something special -- and that his experience playing smaller was an advantage as he adapted to the post.
"He kind of asked himself, 'Do I fit a mold or can I be my own player?'" Barrett said. "I don't feel like there was surprise from us.
"The question was when was he going to put these pieces together? He's not a prototypical player.
"He's made tremendous strides. But I still don't think we've seen the best of Kelly Olynyk."'Different styles and systems'
Olynyk credits the work he did last year with Gonzaga strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight in helping him adapt to his frame, but he's also quick to point out his time with Team Canada as crucial to his evolution.
"It gave me a chance to play when I was getting the playing time here [at Gonzaga]," Olynyk said. "The guys you play against internationally and even in practice show you a bunch of different styles and systems.
"For me, [Miami Heat centre] Joel Anthony had a huge part in helping me out."
Before the NBA draft talk ramps up, Olynyk and Gonzaga, including another Canadian point guard in Kevin Pangos of Holland Landing, Ont., have their work cut out for them in the NCAA tournament. Despite the university's basketball success over the years, this is the first time it has landed a No. 1 seed in the bracket (and a No. 1 national ranking during the regular season), thanks to a school-record 31 wins. There's generally some skepticism among the U.S. media when a team from a smaller conference (in this case, the WCC) gets a high seed, but the Bulldogs appear to be literally tuning that out before the big dance.
"David Stockton's dog ate our [TV] remote, so we haven't really had the opportunity to watch any of that stuff," Olynyk said jokingly of his teammate and Hall of Famer John Stockton's son.
"We're so close [as a team] and it shows how much we truly like playing with each other," Olynyk added.
Comfort and confidence is a good thing.
"My comfort level is probably at an all-time high right now," Olynyk said. "My development last year, with being red-shirted, not only my body, but my game has definitely attributed to that confidence, but my teammates have done a great job believing in me."
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