The Boston Celtics believe Kelly Olynyk has star potential. This may surprise a lot of people who watch basketball on a regular basis, but the elements of a very good player are there. The question is: How much longer before he puts it all together, if ever?
From a recent article by Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck on the dilemma Boston faces with its franchise player, Rajon Rondo, comes this precious detail:
And then there is Olynyk, the lean, lithe 7-footer drafted with the 13th pick in 2013. Olynyk is shooting a team-high .478 from three-point range, .592 overall and averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. Team officials consider him a future star.
At present, none of the Celtics' young prospects merit that label—but then, few people predicted that Al Jefferson would become a dominant post scorer when the Celtics shipped him to Minnesota as part of the package for Garnett seven years ago.
Boston’s reported assessment is meaningful for several reasons. First and foremost, it tells us the Celtics likely don’t plan on trading him for anything less than a superstar. We assume this means they aren’t inclined to include him in any deal for the likes of Greg Monroe, Al Horford or Roy Hibbert.
More importantly, it tells us the Celtics, one of the smartest franchises in professional sports, believe they’re sitting on an untapped keg of talent.
Another possibility can’t be ignored, and that’s that Boston used the “future star” tag to publicly inflate Olynyk’s trade value. This may be the case, but given his noticeable overall improvement from year one to year two and the genuine rarity and appeal of his skill set, it’s unlikely.
Instead, we give the Celtics the benefit of the doubt, and honor their belief that a sweet-shooting 7-footer who can finish on the move, create his own shot and read complex NBA defenses from several different spots on the court will eventually bloom into an All-Star-shaped flower.
What do we know so far? About one month into the NBA season, Olynyk is one of the league’s most efficient players. Before Friday afternoon's 1-of-8 performance against the Chicago Bulls, his true shooting percentage was .642 (ninth best) and his effective field-goal percentage was .620 (sixth best). He was making a sensational 45.2 percent of his threes on 2.6 attempts per game.
Olynyk’s height and position make these numbers glow. He only averages 8.3 field-goal attempts per game. But once his assertiveness catches up with his still-growing talent, Olynyk will be one of the most difficult matchups in the league. Offenses that can effectively spread the floor and drag rim protectors to the perimeter have an easier time scoring the ball than those that can't.
The Dirk Nowitzki comparisons are not fair for dozens of reasons, but they exist because there really isn’t anyone else to compare him to. Olynyk is a really tall guy who can really shoot the ball. Look at his shot chart. He thrives in areas that tend to make defenses hyperventilate.
Channing Frye and Spencer Hawes are two other solid comparisons—both are tall players who rain fire from the outside and force defenders to become their shadow on pick-and-pops. But Olynyk’s ceiling as an offensive threat is higher. He doesn’t rely on the outside shot as his primary weapon, even though he’s very good at it.
Olynyk refuses to settle, even when defenders leave him alone. He’ll either pump fake his man into the air or simply use the space he’s been given as a launching pad before driving into the paint. Once there, he has nifty floaters and the vision to find open teammates all over the floor.
Marc Gasol, arguably the best defensive player in the league, goads Olynyk into taking a three. Instead, the Celtics' big man puts it on the floor, spins middle and draws a foul. It's impressive and represents, in part, why Boston operates as the eighth best offense in the league with him on the floor.
These are all extremely promising signs for any 23-year-old, and they help make Olynyk an intriguing basketball player. But for him to be a star, he needs to round his game out a bit. He's smart, nimble and large, but defense remains a question mark.
Olynyk is in the unfortunate position of being a 7-footer ill-suited to protect the rim. This particular weakness is not crippling, as most of the better power forwards in basketball aren't very good at guarding their own basket (LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Nowitzki, Kevin Love, etc.). But if Olynyk plans on contributing over 30 minutes a night, the Celtics need to pair him with someone who can anchor their defense.
For now, he's the starting center. But Boston knows this isn't his natural position. Sliding him down a notch will help him and the team a great deal. Regardless of where he plays, though, Olynyk struggles to stay on the floor. He's committing 5.3 personal fouls per 36 minutes, which, incredibly, is lower than his career average of 5.7. This can't go on and is a major reason why he's barely playing 26 minutes a game.
As Woody Allen famously said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." This quote sums up Olynyk's destiny as a defensive presence. He's so big that he forces a miss by simply raising his arms and standing between a ball-handler and the basket. Olynyk can't really jump. He relies on instincts, reflexes and timing to make a positive impact on the play. And if effort and correct rotations come, he'll be solid.
According to SportVU, opponents are shooting 52.4 percent at the rim when he's the closest defender. That number compares favorably to Chris Bosh and Tyson Chandler, but it is far from desirable. Only a tiny handful of starting centers are currently posting a lower total rebound rate, too.
If put in the proper situation—i.e. beside a shot-blocking center—Olynyk would be perfectly fine on the defensive side of the ball. And his dead-eye range means whoever accompanies him in the frontcourt can be as terrible as he wants shooting the ball.
In other words, Olynyk has weaknesses, but he's also only one month into his second season and continues to play out of position. His offensive contributions are noteworthy and, in some spots, downright eye-popping.
Whether stardom lies in his future is unknown. But betting against it may not be the wisest decision. The league isn't trending toward the celebration of long-range sniping centers so much as we're already there. And as other areas of Olynyk's game expand, so will the spotlight.
Michael Pina is an NBA writer who's been published at Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, Grantland and a few other very special places. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.