Kelly Olynyk had a few instant observations upon returning to Gonzaga for the first time in approximately five years.
First and foremost, the energy, noise and passion at McCarthey Athletic Center were as good as he remembers it.
“Same energy,” Olynyk said. “It’s live in there, man.”
Olynyk’s other observation? The wall got bigger.
The former Gonzaga big man and nine-year NBA veteran was referring to the blue cement wall that lines the corridor adjacent to the Bulldogs’ locker room at the Kennel. White “Zags in the NBA” lettering rests above two rows of jerseys on either side of the wall, highlighting GU players who’ve gone on to play in the NBA.
The last time Olynyk was here, the NBA jerseys only occupied one side of the wall and there weren’t enough for multiple rows. Now the Zags are running out of real estate. A total of 26 former GU players, and 16 different NBA teams, are represented on a slab of concrete that now stretches from the locker room to the makeshift room where the Zags are holding press conferences this season.
“When I left, I feel like it was me, John Stockton, Austin Daye, Adam Morrison, maybe (Robert) Sacre was on that wall,” Olynyk said. “Now you walk in here and the wall goes from – they need another wall with all the guys that have gone to the league now.”
Saturday’s home finale against Santa Clara offered other reminders of Gonzaga’s now-robust pipeline to the NBA. Olynyk, in his first year with the Detroit Pistons, was one of three former players currently in the NBA to attend, sitting next to the Orlando Magic’s Jalen Suggs and the Memphis Grizzlies’ Killian Tillie during a 81-69 win that clinched an outright West Coast Conference regular-season title for the Zags.
“I’ve been in the league nine years now, and every year it’s like there’s more Zags, more Zags, more Zags,” Olynyk said. “It’s almost every night you’re playing against a Zag and before it was few and far between. You might have one or two games in the year against a Zag.
“Right before the break I played against Washington and they had three. It’s cool, it’s really special. (Memphis) has got two. It’s fun, it’s fun to see. It’s exciting and I don’t think it’s stopping anytime soon, and that’s the best part about it. It’s coming.”
Olynyk, Tillie and Suggs had breaks in the NBA schedule that allowed them to make a short trip to the Pacific Northwest, though Suggs was on a tighter turnaround than the others after playing in the NBA’s Rising Stars game Friday night in Cleveland.
A demanding NBA schedule can make getaways to Spokane tough during the regular season – Suggs was able to make a pit stop last week between road games at Portland and Utah – but it’s not uncommon for the former Zags to return in the offseason and spend time with members of the current team.
“Kind of speaking to the alumni part, we don’t do it for just ourselves or our fans, we do it for all the players before us that always come back and give the time to us to help teach us,” Gonzaga junior forward Drew Timme said. “We were all working out with Kelly this summer and Tillie. They don’t have to do that. They’re in the NBA, they could go to whatever beach in the world they want, but they chose to come here and help us, and it’s great to have a program like that.
“We just want to do our best to make those guys happy because they kind of passed the keys to us, and it’s our job to take the keys, drive it and pass it on to the next group.”
Tillie has overcome one injury after another – both in college and the NBA – to earn a spot with the Grizzlies, one of the league’s hottest teams through the first half of the season.
The former Gonzaga forward and France native hadn’t returned to Spokane for a game until Saturday, but Tillie was thrilled to catch up with a few former teammates and get a live glimpse of a Bulldogs team he thinks could be poised for another deep run in March.
“I played with a few of these guys that are still on the team, so I’ve been definitely watching and supporting them,” Tillie said. “I’m excited for March, I think they can do great things. I’m excited for that.”
Living on the East Coast much of his NBA career, Olynyk has found it difficult to watch the Zags on a weekly basis, but he tries to catch games whenever he can and makes sure to keep tabs on GU whenever they’re playing the school of an NBA teammate – mainly for bragging purposes.
“Always watching, always following. It doesn’t matter where or when it is. They’re good, man. They’re really good. I feel like you say that every year, but they’ve got some really good guys. Obviously it’s the same system that’s been so potent in this conference. It’s fun to watch, it’s really fun to watch,” Olynyk said. “When you’re sitting back there in your locker room, back in Memphis, Detroit, wherever it is, you’re proud to say that’s my squad right there that’s messing y’all up.”