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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk takes pride in growing number of Zags in NBA

In a matchup of former Zags, Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren defends against Utah’s Kelly Olynyk during the second half Monday at Paycom Center in Oklahoma City.  (Getty Images)
By Stephen Hunt The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – Kelly Olynyk is in his second season with the Utah Jazz, the fifth NBA team for which the former Gonzaga star has suited up, and playing in Utah has been a nice fit for the ex-Zag.

“It’s been great. They take care of their people really, really well, (put) a lot of thought into what they do,” said Olynyk, 32, who is averaging 7.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 19 games this season. “It’s a very easy place to play with great fans. It’s a great city in terms of a great quality of life. I’ve loved it.”

In September 2022, Olynyk was traded from Detroit to Utah, which was breaking in a new head coach in Will Hardy, who was hired in June 2022. Long considered one of the NBA’s top young assistants, Hardy had spent six seasons working under Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and later in Boston before ascending to his first head coaching job with the Jazz.

Playing for Hardy, whose approach has been well received, is one reason Olynyk has enjoyed his time with the Jazz.

“I love the way he approaches the game, thinks the game, his mind,” Olynyk said. “He’s very easygoing and free-minded, doesn’t get too high or low, loves the game of basketball and thinks the game a different way. He lets everybody be themselves. He does that in a way that is his own and embodies his personality and character. He tries to project that and spread that into the organization. It’s been really good for us.”

Now in his 11th NBA season, many remember Olynyk most when he came back from a redshirt season to average 17.8 point per game for the Zags and earn West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors as a junior in 2013.

In fall 2022, his No. 13 was raised to the rafters at the McCarthey Athletic Center, the ultimate sign of the mark he left on the program which he still calls family.

He continues to be proud to represent Gonzaga every time he steps on the floor in the NBA. “I think it (what epitomizes GU) has changed a little bit throughout the years. The program has been good for a really long time,” Olynyk said. “Coach (Mark) Few has done a phenomenal job of continuing success, which is not easy at all.

“You look at those top programs, they have down years and years where they’re unranked, miss the tournament, or not in their conference finals, whatever it is. Gonzaga’s somehow been able to avoid those slumps and dips. It’s almost unheard of, the consistent success. Being a Zag, it’s about community, it’s about family. It’s about togetherness. When you go there, you realize it’s a community, a family. It has been for a long time and will continue to be for a long time.”

Olynyk also takes great pride in looking around the league, especially around the Western Conference, and seeing fellow Gonzaga products – there are 10 in the NBA – also repping GU at the pro level.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of Zags around in the NBA,” he said. “It’s crazy because when I first got in the NBA, I think there were three of us. … It was few and far between. Now, I feel like almost every team we play has a Zag on it, it’s crazy.

“There’s a lot of younger guys now that I hadn’t played with or haven’t spent a lot of time with, but you still share that interest and bond of being Zags. It’s cool to follow their careers, catch up with them and see them when you play them.”

Olynyk grew up in Toronto and remembers attending Raptors games as a kid, dreaming of one day playing in the NBA, which makes those rare trips back to Scotiabank Arena, the Raptors’ home arena, extra special. He’s also savored playing for Team Canada, such as at the 2023 FIBA World Cup from Aug. 25 to Sept. 10, when Canada brought home a bronze medal, another dream come true for the affable big man.

“Yeah, it was great (playing for Canada again). It’s always awesome to play for your country, represent your country,” Olynyk said. “To win a medal in the World Championships, the World Cup, is huge. It’s something that’s never been done before. Obviously, I thought we could have done even better, but we were kind of in a March Madness tournament where if you have one bad game, you’re knocked out, but it was a lot of fun.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.