Commentary

Kelly Olynyk isn't Dirk Nowitzki ...

But it's a fun comparison to consider as the Mavs make their lone visit to Boston

Updated: February 9, 2014, 1:35 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Let's play everyone's favorite game: Whose Stat Line is it Anyway?

Player A: 8.2 pts, 3.4 reb, 20.4 mpg, 40.5 FG%, 20.6 3PT%, 12.8 PER

Player B: 6.5 pts, 4.3 reb, 18.1 mpg, 42.3 FG%, 30.8 3PT%, 12.3 PER

Hint: Both are rookie stat lines, 15 years apart. You have 30 seconds, good luck.

[Jeopardy theme music]

Player A is Dirk Nowitzki's rookie line in 47 games for the Dallas Mavericks during the 1998-99 campaign. Player B is Kelly Olynyk's stat line through 41 games this season for the Boston Celtics.

[+] EnlargeKelly Olynyk
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsKelly Olynyk flashes great potential but must develop his game to earn more playing time.

Now, let's be explicitly clear here: We are NOT suggesting that Olynyk is going to be an 11-time All-Star or league and Finals MVP who spends his entire career in one jersey. But consider this exercise a friendly reminder that it takes a little time for every rookie to find his place in the NBA.

The jumping off point for this exercise is that Nowitzki and the Mavericks make their lone visit to TD Garden on Sunday to meet the streaking Celtics. It's the first time that Olynyk gets to share the NBA floor with one of his NBA idols.

Yes, the flowing hair, the No. 41 jersey, the sweet-shooting stroke, Olynyk hasn't exactly run from that which inevitably leaves observers making the Nowitzki comparison. Olynyk is bashful when that chatter arises, saying he's humbled to even be mentioned in the same breath as a player with as decorated a career as Nowitzki.

Comparisons to the man Gerald Wallace calls the "German Assassin" aside, a breakout performance at the Orlando summer league set first-year expectations for Olynyk unfairly high. The impatient types worry the Canadian 7-footer won't reach his potential, despite simply enduring the typical ups and downs of the NBA rookie.

There have been glimpses of his potential along his first-year odyssey -- 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting against the Lakers last month, or 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting versus the Hawks on New Year's Eve -- but his playing time and production have been inconsistent. Even still, you can see progress in his game.

While he's still a bit too hesitant with his shot, Olynyk has thrived recently by putting a focus on everything but his own offense. At times we've seen a more aggressive rebounder, a more competitive defender and a player content to facilitate offense with excellent passing skills.

During Friday's win over the Sacramento Kings, Olynyk finished with 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting with nine rebounds, five assists and a steal. Multiple times he used his height to outleap DeMarcus Cousins and keep an offensive rebound alive by tipping it back out to a teammate.

With the qualifier that he's been limited to 15.3 minutes per game during Boston's recent three-game winning streak, it's hard to ignore how Olynyk owns a plus-17 net rating during his floor time (113.3 offensive rating; 96.3 defensive rating). He's also tops among Boston's regulars with a 13.2 percent offensive rebound rate in that span, and his assist rate is as glossy as some of the point guards.

That's an encouraging sign, even in a small sample. For the season, Olynyk's defensive rating of 104.9 is second worst on the team (only Gerald Wallace currently owns a worse number among regulars).

Olynyk struggled with his shot early in the season and his advanced individual numbers are a bit of an eyesore (according to Synergy, he ranks in the 25th percentile averaging 0.812 points per play). No one is really sweating those numbers because his offense will almost certainly come in time.

The key is getting Olynyk to understand Boston's defensive philosophies and thrive in the help system. What's more, he's also trying to get his body into NBA shape. Olynyk must navigate the tricky balance between bulking up without compromising the speed and athleticism that make him a 7-foot weapon on the offensive end.

Regardless of how Boston's season plays out from here, the next three months are important for the development of young players like Olynyk. If the Celtics make any moves at the trade deadline, it could open up more consistent playing time.

But coach Brad Stevens said he prefers that his players earn their time, and Olynyk must show that he's making progress and worthy of an extended opportunity, particularly now when Boston is logjammed at the frontcourt spots.

After Olynyk was picked for the league's Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend, Stevens noted, "I think Kelly is just going through your typical rookie swings of good games, not-so-good games. That's part of being a rookie. And it's part of inconsistent minutes, too; it's hard to play inconsistent minutes."

Not to put unfair expectations on Olynyk, but you look at someone like Jared Sullinger -- who is blossoming into a double-double machine in his second season in the league -- and wonder if Olynyk could see similar development, particularly on a team in transition. While the Celtics have stressed that they view Olynyk as a complementary player, he has an offensive skill set that Boston needs off its bench.

Forget the comparisons to guys like Nowitzki; that kind of thing will take care of itself in time. Olynyk needs to immerse himself in getting better on the defensive end. Doing so could open doors to consistent playing time, which he needs to develop his game at this level.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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