Boston Celtics’ rookie Kelly Olynyk entered the 2013 NBA Draft touted as one of the most NBA-ready players in the class. He had dominated the NCAA, leading his Gonzaga team to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and his array of offensive moves were considered rare for a man of his size. Celtics’ general manager Danny Ainge traded up in the draft to 13th overall to ensure he got his man and early indications were that Olynyk could be a dark horse for Rookie of the Year considerations. While there were some promising signs early, it appears that Olynyk may have a ways to go before he can be relied on for consistent minutes in the NBA.
In the Celtics’ regular season opener on Wednesday night against the Raptors, Olynyk struggled through a 16-minute spell, showing that he still has a lot to learn and work to do if he hopes to keep up with the elite in the NBA. Olynyk had four points on 2-from-5 shooting, including 0-from-2 from the 3-point line. He didn’t grab a single rebound, turned the ball over three times, fouled twice and had a team-low minus-19 plus/minus. He was hesitant offensively, lost on defense and was unable to secure anything that came off the rim. Olynyk has also yet to show that he is willing to do the dirty work of an NBA big man, he has yet to set a single effective screen and was routinely getting beaten for position in the paint.
It hasn’t all been bad for Olynyk since he joined the Celtics, though. He was a dominant force in summer league and has impressed his coaches with his skill level in camp. He has also spent time in the community, attending team events and has quickly become a familiar face on a team that has nearly an entirely new roster this season. The difference in summer league competition to the NBA preseason was an early sign that Olynyk may not be NBA-ready as yet, he averaged 19 points and nearly eight rebounds per game in the Orlando Summer League while in NBA preseason action those numbers dipped to nine and 4.5, despite playing similar minutes.
We know that Olynyk can score and that for a big man he has a knock-down jump shot out to the 3-point line, but since preseason started, and in his NBA debut, he has been hesitant to take shots despite often being wide open. This is a trend that is likely to change sooner rather than later and is likely just a result of Olynyk trying to be unselfish on his new team. He doesn’t need to develop a great deal on his individual offense, but off the ball he has a lot of work to do. He has struggled to make contact when attempting to set a screen, sometimes due to poor positioning, others because he leaves his spot too early, but regardless this is something that will need to be addressed as a priority as the pick-and-pop will likely be one of Olynyk’s most effective scoring options as a pro.
Defensively and on the glass is where Olynyk needs the most work. Coming into the draft there were concerns that he would struggle against the athletes in the NBA, but with his size and a seemingly high basketball IQ, Ainge and the Celtics hoped that he would overcome other physical limitations. He will never be any kind of defensive anchor or a double-digit rebounder, but you cannot solidify yourself as an NBA big man unless you are at least capable of competing on both ends and not being seen as a liability. On Wednesday against the Raptors, Olynyk was obviously out of his depth as the Raptors big men rebounded over the top of him and the team went on a huge scoring run while he was on the floor.
This is not intended to be an overreaction to one game. Olynyk remains one of the most polished first-year players in the league this season, but he and coach Brad Stevens will need to put in the work early so he is able to increase his role as the season wears on. From all accounts, Olynyk is a smart player, a hard worker and his team-first mentality should make him extremely coachable when it comes to making improvements to his game. The Celtics frontcourt may lack star power, but there are a number of established NBA veterans that now stand between Kelly Olynyk and consistent minutes on the floor. He will need to make improvements day-by-day and should, one at a time, overtake these players on the depth chart as the season rolls on. Stevens is renowned for his in-depth video and statistical analysis and no doubt he and his assistant coaches have already identified these areas where Olynyk needs to improve. It will now be up to the rookie big man to put the time into the gym, work with his new coaching staff and expand an already impressive set of skills. The Celtics are in a position to be patient with Olynyk and with the belief of his coaches as well as expected roster moves coming throughout the season, he will get his chance to improve and could still be one of the most impactful rookies from the 2013 draft once he adjusts to the NBA.