Commentary

Kelly Olynyk riding out ups, downs

Celtics rookie still trying to settle in after roller-coaster start to his NBA career

Updated: December 31, 2013, 1:23 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Back in August, the Boston Celtics took top draft pick Kelly Olynyk up to Canobie Lake Park, a New Hampshire amusement park, and put him on some rides during a community event. He didn't get a chance to try out Yankee Cannonball or the Canobie Corkscrew, but he has been riding his own roller coaster for the better part of the past six months.

From being selected 13th in June's draft, to starring at the Orlando Summer League, to struggling early in his rookie campaign to elevating, to a starting role as he settled in, to suffering a severe right ankle sprain that sidelined him for 10 games, Olynyk has crammed an awful lot into his first 180 days on the job.

[+] EnlargeKelly Olynyk
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesAs he struggles on offense, Kelly Olynyk is trying to do the little things to help the Celtics win.

On Monday, a reporter was rehashing Olynyk's ride and started asking Celtics coach Brad Stevens if, given the up-and-down nature of that voyage, he had to remind Olynyk that ...

"He's a rookie?" Stevens interjected, finishing the query on his own. "No question."

Olynyk's lofty draft position (Boston traded up three spots to snag him) and his summer breakthrough (he averaged a team-best 18 points and 7.8 rebounds in Orlando and was named to the all-tournament first team) probably set the bar of expectations a bit too high even for a skilled 7-footer.

Olynyk is averaging 6.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists over 19.8 minutes per game in 20 appearances. In six games since returning from injury earlier this month, Olynyk's averages are just 3.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists over 13 minutes per contest.

Asked about the difficulty coming back from the ankle ailment, Olynyk pondered the question for a moment before noting, "I would just say, when you come back, you're not always back to where you were before. It's hard to keep building, keep adjusting, but it's all part of the process."

It's hard enough for a rookie to find his way in the NBA without added obstacles. Avery Bradley chipped a bone in his ankle during a pre-draft workout before Boston selected him in 2010 and his rookie campaign was limited to 162 minutes over 31 appearances.

Olynyk is shooting 37.7 percent from the floor this season, including 22.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Boston's offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) is a mere 96 when he's on the court (3½ points below the team's already anemic 99.6 rating for the season). The Celtics' defensive rating with Olynyk on the court is a team-worst 105.8.

But neither Olynyk nor Stevens is panicked about those numbers. Right now, the focus is on getting Olynyk trending in the right direction, finding different ways to get him going and to take some of the thinking out the game so he can get back to playing instinctively.

During Saturday's win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Olynyk grabbed seven rebounds, three of which came while chasing missed free throws. Olynyk acknowledges he's trying to do the little things to help the team while searching to spark himself. He's content to attack the glass or work as a facilitator in the high post if it helps the team.

Last season, Jared Sullinger was regarded as the talented high-IQ rookie. As Sullinger's game further blossoms this season, he speaks highly of Olynyk -- the two often share the floor in sub lineups.

"He's playing well," Sullinger said. "He had that big, big ankle injury that set him out for a couple of weeks, so he had a little setback. He's starting to get his timing back, starting to get his lift back, and it showed. It showed against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's just got to get his timing back. It's going to take some time, but he's playing well."

Stevens notes that a crowded Boston frontcourt is working both for and against Olynyk.

"He's got a young guy with him in [fellow rookie Vitor] Faverani who hasn't played in the NBA, but is a much more experienced pro," Stevens said. "Sullinger is a very capable second-year guy, even though he still hasn't played the number of games of a rookie, then two experienced guys [Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries] -- and most of those guys are 4s. So he's got good people around him, which is going to be really good for him, but at the same time, it limits his opportunities."

So what's the next step for Olynyk? It likely starts on the defensive end.

"He's a pretty good perimeter defender, moving his feet, challenging shots, those type of things," Stevens said. "That makes sense since he was a smaller guy growing up, but now he can just get better and better on the interior."

Synergy Sports data shows that Olynyk is giving up 1.308 points per play in the post (34 points on 26 possessions defended). Teams are targeting him as he learns to hold his own with the NBA heavyweights around the basket. He acknowledged there's a careful balance as he attempts to add bulk without sacrificing the speed and athleticism that can aid him on both ends of the court.

The encouraging part for Olynyk is that he knows his offense eventually will come and that's likely to take pressure off other aspects of his game. Using Bradley as a comparison again, Doc Rivers spent the better part of 18 months swearing that Bradley had potential to be an offensive weapon and no one believed him. Shortly thereafter, Bradley had taken Ray Allen's spot in the starting lineup.

Olynyk is maintaining faith in himself.

"You have to have the confidence and belief," Olynyk said. "Obviously, it's tough. [Offense] used to come easy all the time, but once you get to this level you almost have to relearn where your shots are going to come from, what they are going to be like, when to take them, when not to take them, that kind of stuff.

"It's going to come, and I believe it will, and I think the team has belief. Whenever that happens, it happens. But you don't want to force it too much."

It's clear that Olynyk understands he's on the rookie roller coaster. He's buckled up and ready for whatever the ride brings next.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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