Kelly Olynyk was back in the city where he was born, where he first picked up a basketball and watched his father coach the game. Back in the place where he first hatched his dream of being an NBA star.
The seven-foot, 240-pound Canadian played his first NBA game at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, introduced as “Canada’s own Kelly Olynyk” as he came off the Boston Celtics bench in the first quarter versus the Toronto Raptors in preseason action.
One of a crop of standout young Canadians breaking into the NBA, the 22-year-old out of Gonzaga University has experts such as Isiah Thomas projecting he’ll vie for rookie-of-the-year honours. He’s coming to the storied Boston franchise at a time when he can make a difference.
While Olynyk’s family moved to Kamloops when he was 12, he was born in Toronto and began playing hoops at 6, eventually mixing with rising young stars like Tristan Thompson, who now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Olynyk’s mom, Arlene, 5-foot-11, was a player and a CIS referee, later working a scorekeeper for the Raptors. His dad, Ken, 6-foot-6, coached in Canada’s national team program and at the University of Toronto.
For one season as an 11-year-old, Olynyk hung around the Raptors locker room while his father worked as a guest coach under Lenny Wilkens. It was there, up close and personal with pros such as Alvin Williams, Vince Carter and Antonio Davis, the youngster first hatched his dream to play in the NBA.
“It’s something you dream about as a kid growing up in Toronto,” Olynyk said, as both Boston and Toronto media crowded around him before the game.
“It’s awesome to be part of this, growing up with a lot of guys, Cory [Joseph], Tristan, all those guys who are now in the league, playing at the highest level you can. It’s really cool to be part of that and to see it develop.
“Now, we have a lot of kids following in our footsteps, which is pretty cool.”
After a couple of average NCAA seasons at Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., Olynyk made the atypical decision to take a red-shirt year and work on his strength and skill in practice and after hours. It paid off.
He beefed up his draft stock.
Olynyk became one of the most recognizable faces of last year’s U.S. college basketball season, the impassioned seven-footer with the long brown hair held back by a headband, leading the Bulldogs to an inspired No.1 ranking.
The NBA draft publications raved about his fluidity, agility and co-ordination for such a big player.
In June, Olynyk was drafted 13th overall by the Dallas Mavericks and then traded to the Celtics for the rights to Lucas Nogueira and two future second-round picks.
He joins the Celtics in a unique stage of rebuilding. Future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded to the Brooklyn Nets in the off-season and head coach Glenn (Doc) Rivers left for the Los Angeles Clippers. (Fresh-faced first-year coach Brad Stevens, who thrived at Butler, has become the latest college coach to make the vast leap to the NBA.)
Olynyk has the versatility to play power forward or centre. He and 2012 first-rounder Jared Sullinger have ignited an interesting chemistry when they play together in the front court.
“Olynyk is a great match for Sullinger,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Because he can really stretch the floor.”
Olynyk is not a starter, but he’s coming off the bench early and contributing key minutes. Going into Wednesday’s contest, he had averaged 12.7 points on 16-for-30 shooting (53.3 per cent). He had a 15-point game last week, versus the New York Knicks. Averaging some 18 points a game in Orlando summer league play shows the potential is there.
Stevens has said he would like to see the big man shoot more. After all, Olynyk was a point guard in high school before shooting up to seven feet.
The Canadian says he’s thankful for the guidance he’s been offered from one of the greatest assist men in today’s game, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.
“He has a wealth of knowledge, and to have that at your fingertips is pretty special,” Olynyk said. “I’m definitely looking forward to playing with him when he’s back [from injury], because he’s a real special player.”
The youngster has been getting used to the life of a professional athlete in Boston, signing autographs and taking in Patriots and Red Sox games. An NBA.com camera crew even followed the rookie as he went house-hunting.
“I’m having fun. Every time I get to play the game of basketball, it’s a blessing, especially at this level,” he said. “It’s my passion and my joy.”