SPOKANE — Kelly Olynyk emerges from the underbelly of the McCarthey Athletic Center – all 7 feet and 238 pounds of him – and it is difficult to imagine that he once played basketball as if he was the world’s tallest guard.
When most of the basketball world last laid eyes on Olynyk prior to last month, he was often skittering around the perimeter, content to fire jump shots over defenders he dwarfed.
Mark Few has always admired Olynyk’s shooting skills. It’s one of the reasons Gonzaga, Syracuse, North Carolina State and countless other schools recruited Olynyk out of the basketball hinterlands of Kamloops, B.C.
Few is no math major, but he quickly figured out that a 7-foot player can make a heck of a lot more shots from, say, 10 feet away from the basket than from 20 feet away.
When Olynyk returned to action this season after redshirting for a season, he came back a stronger, more physical player ready and willing to work closer to the basket. As a result, the junior forward came into the week ranked second in the nation in field-goal percentage at 67.1.
“He’s got a better understanding of where he can be effective,” Few said before a Gonzaga practice this week. “I think before, he … wanted to be a perimeter player, a perimeter shooter.
“At 7 feet tall, he’s got a lot of gifts, and that’s one of them (his shooting ability). But with those kinds of hands and that kind of feel and the ability to score, he’s very functional around the basket.
“He’s a big guy, a very big guy. It would just be a waste to spend his whole life out there on the 3-point line.”
In his first two college seasons, Olynyk launched 3-pointers on nearly one-fourth of his field-goal tries (46 of 227). His 35.6 percent accuracy on 3-pointers was respectable, but he sank 58.8 percent of his other shots.
This season, only seven of Olynyk’s 79 shots have been from 3-point range, and he’s made just one. He’s second on the Bulldogs behind senior forward Elias Harris in scoring (14.6) and rebounding (6.6), even though he plays just 24 minutes a game as a part-time starter for the uncommonly deep and well-balanced Bulldogs.
“Olynyk is tremendous,” Harris said. “He’s a (7-footer) who has a really good feel for the game.”
“The redshirt year really helped me,” Olynyk said. “I got to get into the weight room and get my body right so I could do things I wanted to do – to get into the condition I needed to get in.
“My confidence has grown. The national team has been huge for me. A multitude of things just kind of fell into place.”
Olynyk has played for Canada’s junior and senior national teams, and he joined Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos at a senior national team training camp in August.
Baylor guard Brady Heslip, Olynyk’s good friend, also attended that camp.
The Bears (8-3) visit 13th-ranked Gonzaga (11-1) today for a game that tips at 5 p.m. on ESPN2.
Olynyk, who was suspended by the school for the first three games for an undisclosed student code violation, has scored 11 or more points in eight of his nine games. Few said he’s not at all surprised by the fast start.
“No, no,” the coach said. “He’s been playing that way through the summer and fall, so I think we were all kind of expecting this.”
Few agreed with Olynyk that it would be best for him to redshirt last season with Gonzaga loaded up front with players such as senior 7-footer Rob Sacre (now with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers).
Gary Bell Jr., Gonzaga’s sophomore guard out of Kentridge High School, said Olynyk “got a lot stronger. I think just him practicing with Rob for a whole year, that just made him a lot better.”
It remains to be seen if Olynyk has improved so much that the NBA will come calling prior to his senior year.
“Right now we’re just trying to get through the season and have a great season and go as far as we can with this group of guys,” Olynyk said.
“But if the (NBA) opportunity presents itself, then sometimes you have to take it. If not, I’m going to be ready to come back next year and have another great run.”