For months the popular question for coach Mark Few was, “Is this the best team you’ve had at Gonzaga?”
The last several weeks that question has been replaced by another: “Have you ever had a player improve as much as Kelly Olynyk?”
Good question. Good questions, actually. Of the former, Few has stated that he won’t have a firm answer until the season runs its course. Of the latter, Few said, “I’d have to think about that for a couple days, especially from where players came in as freshmen. Rob (Sacre) wasn’t a finished product by any means when we got him, neither was Ronny (Turiaf). Ronny made big, big improvement.
“I guess the best thing is we’re talking about Kelly in that light and comparing him to those types of people.”
The transformation of Olynyk, as much mentally as physically, has been a national storyline as Gonzaga (16-1) has ascended to No. 8 in the polls. The 7-foot junior forward from Kamloops, B.C., emerged from a redshirt year with a stronger, more agile 240-pound body and scoring options stretching from above the rim to beyond the 3-point line.
Think about it. Olynyk didn’t show up on any WCC preseason awards lists. He was rarely mentioned as an NBA prospect. In the span of 14 games in less than two months, Olynyk has become the team’s leading scorer (18.1), a bona fide candidate for WCC player of the year and he’s shooting up NBA mock-draft boards.
“I’m just trying to take it with a grain of salt,” Olynyk said. “It’s more about the team. We want to keep this going. We’ve been great at being team guys and being a great team overall.”
So how did Olynyk’s makeover happen?
“It’s kind of been a perfect storm of everything coming together, really ahead of schedule,” said strength coach Travis Knight, who would know perhaps better than anybody. “With all the work he’s put in and all of his basketball savvy and the work he put in with the coaches, now he can do things he couldn’t do before.”
Olynyk was a point guard in high school before sprouting 7 inches as a junior. He was 6-10 and 205 pounds when he committed to Gonzaga in January 2009, and “definitely more of a perimeter player than a post player,” said Ken Olynyk, Kelly’s father and prep coach at the time. Olynyk was often the third or fourth big his first two seasons at GU, stuck behind Sacre and Elias Harris.
Olynyk considered transferring after his sophomore season.
“When stuff isn’t working you have to change something,” he said. “It was more of an idea; it wasn’t full-blown by any means. At the end of the year, the coaches meet with all the players. There was an option of redshirting because if I left I’d have to redshirt anyway so that made sense. We had a bunch of meetings and a bunch of ideas. They said they’d help me improve and help me develop.”
Olynyk put in the gym hours, refining his game.
“One of the managers would come in with him every night, mornings, nights, weekends,” senior forward Mike Hart said. “Everything he’s getting now he deserves because he put in the time.”
Meanwhile, Knight put together a program consisting of 50 percent weight training and 50 percent “trying to get his mind and body to move at a faster pace, to process things at a faster rate. He was prone to charges and bowling into guys and picking up cheap fouls. We focused on helping him get more agile.”
Knight, a former Gonzaga baseball player, borrowed drills once used by Edgar Martinez and Kirby Puckett. Knight marked tennis balls with letters or numbers to signify Olynyk’s right or left hand and right or left foot.
“Then we began throwing in a lot of different factors, throwing tennis balls while doing footwork exercises,” Knight said. “We experimented constantly to get his feet and hands to work in all these different combinations so the second he was ready to do something, his body was ready to do it.”
Olynyk called it “functional agility, improving my overall athleticism. Anything he said, I did. It was his project and I was the experiment.”
Knight constantly changed the exercises to keep Olynyk’s creative mind engaged. To enhance Olynyk’s vertical explosion, Knight tossed a medicine ball off the backboard and Olynyk from a standing start would jump up and tip the ball at the rim. Using an assortment of cords and cables, Knight pushed and pulled Olynyk, “doing anything to get him off balance so he would get better at fighting that tendency to be off balance.”
In the weight room, Knight focused on “strength you can apply. We tried to do as much weight work with him standing up (because) you don’t play basketball on your back.”
The results were impressive. Olynyk’s body fat dropped by 2 percent and he’s added lean muscle mass. Unable to do a pull-up when he arrived, Olynyk now belts out 15. His running vertical tested at 32 inches, pretty good for a 7-footer. About three weeks later, Olynyk had made a 7-inch improvement.
“When he came in he had no upper body and an undeveloped lower body. He looked almost upside down,” Knight said. “Now he has more shape to his lower body and his upper body looks really good.”
It’s added up to huge improvements on the court.
“I have the ability to score inside way more than before,” Olynyk said. “That’s a huge aspect of my game because it’s something really tough to guard, especially at my height. Now with the body I have, I don’t get bumped off the ball and my balance has improved.”