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Meet the Canadian basketball phenom leading the No. 1 team in the NCAA

Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk reacts after Saint Mary's called time out during the second half of the West Coast Conference tournament championship NCAA college basketball game, Monday, March 11, 2013, in Las Vegas. Gonzaga won 65-51.

Julie Jacobson/AP

It is quiet on the campus of Gonzaga University, the small Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., a remote city 450 kilometres east of Seattle. It's spring break, and there's hardly anyone around. At the McCarthey Athletic Center, the seats empty, the sound at midday is the bouncing of basketballs, a light shoot-around practice.

The young men do not immediately look like they comprise the No.1-ranked basketball team in the NCAA. Just kids. But anyone can see a rare spark in the game of the seven-foot 21-year-old, his long brown hair dancing down to his shoulders, held back off his face and behind his ears by a narrow headband. He hits one, two, three, four, five, six shots in a row, from the three-point arc, baseline. Taking passes down low, he turns, fakes, then rises like he is stepping a single stair, and plunk: dunk.

When the college hoops season began last fall, no one expected anything from Kelly Olynyk. The Canadian had played two years at Gonzaga but struggled. Last season, Olynyk made an unusual pivot. He took a red shirt, a move used mostly for 18-year-old freshmen, and played no games. Instead, beyond the glare of TV cameras, he toiled in practice and put in hours and hours to hone his body, exercises to bring rhythm and strength to a frame that had grown so quickly.

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"He sacrificed," said assistant coach Donny Daniels, outside the arena in the sun after practice. "That's a crazy word nowadays. Very few people want to sacrifice. Kelly did."

Today, after a jump that has awed everyone watching – "I can't compare it to anything I've been involved in," Daniels said – Olynyk is one of the best players in the country, up for all the big awards, and his name is suddenly on lists of the top potential NBA draft picks. And, most of all, his play has propelled his team, a perennial competitor but never a real contender.

This year, Olynyk has elevated Gonzaga to the No.1 ranking for the first time, usurping the likes of Duke, Indiana, and Louisville, and on Sunday Gonzaga is expected to secure a No.1 seed for March Madness, which begins next week. It will be Gonzaga's 15th consecutive tournament appearance, a run bettered only by Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State, all three far bigger schools, but the Bulldogs have never cracked the final four. The school where John Stockton once starred is still an outlier, and the current roster includes a German and a Pole, two Canadians – Olynyk, and Kevin Pangos – and a Stockton, David, John's son.

On Thursday, in the early afternoon, Olynyk sits in the first row of the quiet arena, after practice, and after a photoshoot where he and two teammates posed with English bulldogs, joking in between takes as the dogs' attention and legs wandered. Olynyk is in red shorts and a white T-shirt with loud and thick turquoise stripes. He favours bright colours, mismatched, and the occasional bowtie. His life has been basketball, always immersed in it. No one expected anything this year. He did.

The day after the interview, his face was on the cover of Friday's USA Today, one of three players pictured for a story hyping the potentially wild March Madness in a year of parity.

"I always knew that I would be able to do something special here, and help this team, this program, reach stuff they've never done before," Olynyk said. "I just didn't know it would come, I guess, this fast, or with this much attention."

500 hundred shots a day

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How does nobody become somebody? How does an overnight success get written, in the long-hand of years? How do cherry blossoms percolate, before they explode into bloom? Springtime. March Madness. Before Kelly Olynyk was the best player on the No.1-ranked college basketball team in the United States, on the giddy precipice of the NCAA tournament, he was, in his spare time, a high school quarterback, back in Kamloops on the high, dry plateau of the B.C. interior.

Olynyk was in Grade 11. At a game in the Vancouver area, in November, quarterbacking the South Kamloops Secondary football team, a hole opened up in the offensive line, and he was slammed to the ground. His left shoulder went wrong. After a long bus ride home, Olynyk was in the Kamloops emergency room at 2 a.m. He had a proximal humerus fracture, the upper-arm bone broken at the shoulder, and the doctor said healing would take five months. It was November, and it was easy math for Olynyk. No basketball that winter. Tears welled up.

Here is how a chapter of an overnight success is written: Five hundred shots a day. Early morning. After school. Weekends. Alone. A teenager's left arm in a sling, three pins in the upper humerus. Five hundred shots a day. Form shooting, and the fingertip control of the ball. There's no one around. You dribble. You work. You keep shooting, your left arm in a sling.

The next year, Olynyk led South Kamloops to the provincial basketball championships, finishing third, as the teenager – suddenly 6-foot-10, growing seven inches in a couple of years – dominated the tournament. After the team was back home, Olynyk texted teammates to go shoot with him. One wrote back that they had just played. "Did we win?" Olynyk texted. He found someone to shoot with.

"He lived to bounce and shoot a ball," said Olynyk's mother, Arlene. Kelly, from his mid-teens, would hang out at the local Tournament Capital Centre, hoping to draft in on games with the local university players and competitive adult men in town. "He was always looking for a game."

The Olynyk family moved to B.C. when Kelly was 12. He was born in a basketball milieu, in Toronto, the second of three children, arriving in April, 1991. His mom, 5-foot-11, had been a player and then referee, later working a scorekeeper for the Toronto Raptors for a decade. His dad, Ken Olynyk, 6-foot-6, was a coach for the men's national team program and coached men's basketball at the University of Toronto. Kelly was playing on teams by age 6. When Kelly was 11, Ken spent a season as a guest coach with the Raptors, where Kelly got a first-hand look at pro basketball. His dream was set.

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"What it does," Ken said, "is gives a sense of what he could accomplish."

Playing without fear of mistakes

After growing seven inches from Grade 10 to 12, Kelly Olynyk added a couple more at Gonzaga. He had been, through his life, a guard, a shooter. Now he was a big man – but he had no clue how to play the post. His body, too, was unwieldy, having changed so much so fast, and it was soft, weak. Olynyk was easy to push around on the court.

Being red shirted was not easy. Not emaciating – but a little bit gutting. After limited court time his first two years, it did not look like there was going to be any more action last season, with Rob Sacre – another Canadian, and now a rookie on the Los Angeles Lakers – at centre for Gonzaga.

So, when no one was looking, Olynyk worked, under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight. Olynyk built strength, lifting heavy weights. He practised with the team. But more important was the slow process to train his body, to marry his whipsmart mind with his new frame, neural training, getting his brain to speak fluently with his limbs. Among the invented tasks, Knight tossed tennis balls at Olynyk, some marked L or R, requiring a catch with the left or right hand, and other balls numbered, demanding quick math and moves right or left. During games, he'd be courtside, a kind-of apprentice coach, watching, learning.

When no one was looking, Olynyk spent a year becoming the player he saw in his mind, the one he always believed was inside.

"I started to notice the difference about halfway through the year, that I could start to do stuff that I couldn't before," Olynyk said. "I wasn't getting pushed around as much, more athletic, stronger, you could just see it building and building."

The player who has emerged is a guard in a centre's body. While his defence is hardly perfect, and he isn't the greatest rebounder, Olynyk can burn opponents in myriad ways. He has the best per-minute statistical production of any player in Division I, which comes from his laser-precise shooting touch: he is on pace to have the highest true shooting percentage of any Division I player in more than a decade. Olynyk's always moving, with or without the ball. His feel for the game, his instincts, so long imbued, are remarkable. When he is on the court, Gonzaga's game flows through him.

Most impressive, for a young man who loved to play from the perimeter his whole life, Olynyk has so quickly adapted to the post, back to the hoop. "Unusually polished post skills for a college player," observed, who described his game as "textbook." called him "one of the most fluid and co-ordinated big men" in college and said he had "amazing" agility and dexterity for his size.

"He had to fight his way, prove that he could play – and then he proved that he could play," Ken said. Asked if he is surprised at how high Kelly has leaped, Ken is quick with an answer: "No." He paused a couple of seconds. "Not at all. When he's comfortable – and he's comfortable right now on the court – it allows him to play without fear of making mistakes."

There had been flashes of what was coming. In September, 2011, playing an Olympics qualifier against Argentina, whose roster was stacked with professionals, Canada was crushed but Olynyk scored 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. It felt like a turning point. But a couple months later, he was in a red shirt.

Now, Olynyk's biggest moment is at hand, a Canadian in the middle of the mayhem of March Madness. Gonzaga stands at No.1, nearly unanimously, but critics charge the team hasn't really played tough competition. If Olynyk plays well and drives Gonzaga deep – and he has a history of delivering his best in big games – his potential as an NBA lottery pick grows ever-stronger. Whether he declares for the draft, or returns for a senior year, is a decision for April. There's basketball to play, and Olynyk will play it in the singular style he has hewed, much like his sartorial tastes.

"Everyone's trying to fit in. It's not that I'm trying to stand out. I'm trying to be myself," he said of his clothing. "I'm not trying to imitate anyone else, I'm not trying to be part of a social norm or anything. I wear bright colours, I wear stuff that doesn't match, because I like that kind of stuff. Everyone wears jeans and white shirts. If you're comfortable and have confidence with whatever you want, that'll get you far."

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