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Gonzaga Basketball

Captain Kelly: Former Gonzaga standout Kelly Olynyk embracing leadership role for Canada ahead of first Olympics

LAS VEGAS – As Canada’s first Olympic training camp session on American soil wound down Monday evening, an assistant coach divided the roster into two groups – 10 on one side of the court, 10 more on the other – for a shooting competition.

The rules: Make four shots from eight spots on the perimeter, sink five free throws without missing and finish with a halfcourt shot.

As the first group finished its free throws, all 10 players rushed to the halfcourt line and started firing. Lu Dort opened with an airball, RJ Barrett clanked one off the left side of the rim and Andrew Nembhard missed off the backboard.

After more than a dozen misses, Kelly Olynyk set up a few feet behind the halfcourt line, glanced at the hoop in the distance, took two stutter steps and launched.


The shaggy-haired veteran raised both arms in the air, flashing three fingers on each hand, and high-fived a few teammates while others took the opportunity to run over and heckle members of the losing group.

It’s unlikely the Canadians will have to rely on Olynyk’s halfcourt shooting prowess at any point during the 2024 Summer Olympics, but the former Gonzaga standout is expected to assume a vital role on a roster made up of NBA champions, MVP candidates and former lottery picks.

“He’s someone who I think everyone’s played with growing up, even when they were young he was someone people grasped to,” said Nembhard, a fellow Gonzaga product and one of the youngest players on Canada’s Olympic roster this summer. “He’s always someone who was reaching out to get guys to come in the summer. So it means a lot to have him there and he’s a leader for the group.”

Olynyk was one of two players selected to be a co-captain for Canada, which could be in the mix for a medal while making the nation’s first Olympic appearance in men’s basketball since 2000. He’ll share the captaincy with NBA veteran and Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell in Paris.

Olynyk, deep in the back half of an NBA career that’s spanned 11 seasons, was only 9 years old the last time Canada qualified.

“It’s huge getting to the Olympics,” Olynyk said. “We’ve been trying to get to the Olympics for like 15 straight years. It’s not easy, it’s a tough task and you see all those teams in the last eight days that are trying to get there. There’s only 12 teams that make it every single year so it’s tough, but all those blood, sweat and tears, battles, coming so close.

“Finally breaking through and being able to make it, it means a lot and it’s something you don’t take for granted and don’t take lightly.”

It’s not been for a lack of effort. Olynyk, who’s been through a handful of Olympic qualifying windows, FIBA tournaments and training camps, carries a perspective to which Canada’s promising young generation – a group that features Nembhard, Barrett, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray – may not relate.

“I think the belief was there, but I think for us it was just about coming together collectively for that six weeks,” Olynyk said, referencing Canada’s showing at the FIBA World Cup last summer that clinched a spot in the Olympics. “There’s ups and downs, fighting through them and just jelling, and I think that’s really what we needed to move forward into this.”

Olynyk is one of two 33-year-old players – Melvin Ejim, the older brother of Gonzaga women’s star Yvonne Ejim, is the other – on a Canada roster that leans younger than most in this Olympic field.

While Canada’s expected to rely on Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to create on offense, Murray’s shot-making in clutch time and the defensive tenacity of Dillon Brooks, Olynyk’s voice, wisdom and experience are valuable assets that figure to come in handy at different points of the team’s Olympic journey.

“He’s someone I can lean on because he understands me well from being together for so long, especially from the national team,” said Powell, who’s teamed with Olynyk on the Canadian national team and in the NBA while both played for the Boston Celtics in 2014. “He was really helpful for me early in my career. It started in Boston and he showed me the ropes those first few months. So we have a bond and I don’t know if this is public, but we used to share rooms back in the day when we didn’t have all the funding of some of these other national teams.

“So our groups bonded a lot back in those days and Kelly and I spent a lot of time together on the road in different countries, and it’s great to have a guy that knows you well and you can lean on him, he can lean on me and support one another.”

Olynyk and Powell bring 21 combined years of NBA experience – and plenty more at the FIBA level – to a 12-man roster that features five players 25 years of age or younger.

“If I ask for leadership, they lead with their voice and they lead by example,” Canada coach Jordi Fernandez said.

“I’m happy they’re my captains,” Brooks said.

“They’ve been in this for a very long time, both of them have played for as long as I can remember,” Gilgeous-Alexander added. “They’re pioneers. They’ve laid the foundation. They’ve been great role models, leaders.”

Olynyk was among the players who made a three-year commitment to the Canadian national team during a private team meeting in 2021 with general manager Rowan Barrett and then-coach Nick Nurse.

“Showing up to all the training camps, coming and doing World Cup, all the windows, (it) earns a player’s respect,” Connor Griffin, a former Gonzaga walk-on guard who’s on Canada’s Olympic staff as a video coordinator, said of Olynyk. “(He) just has a sense of calmness about him. Really good spirited guy, which is good for these younger guys that haven’t been around it as much.

“He just has experience. It’s refreshing to have a guy like that who knows all the rules, has been in a bunch of different environments.”

Olynyk’s game hasn’t changed all that much since he claimed All-American honors at Gonzaga after his final college season in 2012-13.

“We were talking about him, he just kind of from day one owned that he was a pick-and-pop big,” Griffin said. “Really good shooter, has really good ball control and can make plays from there. So I don’t think it’s as much his game is evolving as it is just improving at what he does.”

Olynyk’s played forward and center roles in the NBA, but at 6-foot-11 he’s the tallest player on Canada’s roster and should have his hands full dealing with some of the Olympic field’s top big men – a group that includes Serbia’s Nikola Jokic, the French duo of Rudy Gobert and Victor Wembanyama, and Americans Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo.

“The rest of the world has a lot of size. I think it’s just something you obviously have to deal with,” Olynyk said. “You’re going to have a game plan, ways to attack and combat those things and go from there.”

Olynyk got a sample on Wednesday facing off against former Gonzaga coach Mark Few, an assistant on Steve Kerr’s Team USA staff, in an exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena. The sturdy forward came off Canada’s bench with 5 minutes, 48 seconds remaining in the first quarter and scored nine points on four of five shooting from the field. Olynyk also had one rebound and three assists in Canada’s 86-72 loss.

“Kelly’s had an incredible career and he’s done what he does best,” Few said. “He’s just a really, really smart, tough, really good basketball player and that’s why he fits in great everywhere. He was with (Erik Spoelstra) in Miami. He’d be great on any team because he’s a great teammate. He knows how to play and he’s tough and he’s a winner. I think that’s why he’s done so well and lasted so long in the league.”