One of the biggest surprises of last season, in my estimation, was the way the situation in the frontcourt played out. Leading up to the season, one of the biggest discussion points was who would start at power forward for Gonzaga in 09-10. It seemed to be a toss up between Andy Poling vs. Elias Harris....well...we all know how that turned out. Elias started as a freshman right away and Poling was out the door by January. The fact that Harris started wasn't that big of a stunner. He had a big summer internationally leading up to his freshman year and came in with plenty of big time experience. The true surprise was that Kelly Olynyk; someone who many thought was a project big and a likely redshirt candidate, worked his way into the rotation by the start of the season. Kelly's contributions last season were sporadic but the confidence and experience he gained could pay huge dividends as we close in on the 2010-11 season.
To further boost Kelly's confidence, he had a fantastic summer of basketball. In a move that surprised many, Leo Rautins, head coach of the Canadian Senior Men's National team, decided to include Kelly on the roster over the summer for the FIBA World Championships. While our friends from the North did not have a tournament to remember, Kelly was a huge bright spot. In Canada's third game, he came off the bench to score 13 points and followed that up with 14 against the Spanish national team.
This international exposure for Kelly could be just the confidence boost needed to elevate his offensive game to the next level...
Similarly to Max's post a few days ago on Mangisto Arop, it does seem a bit odd to have such high expectations for a player that had such an up and down season as Kelly did a year ago. Four points, three rebounds, and an assist per game doesn't seem like the stat line for a player who is on the verge of breaking out. With Kelly, however, there are a few things that seemed to hold him back last year that a good offseason of international competition and working with the GU strength and conditioning team should have been able to improve.
First and foremost with Kelly, it always seemed to be a confidence thing with him offensively. He had games where he was simply marvelous on offense. His best game of the year, in my book, was on the road against a veteran-laden Portland Pilots team. Kelly came off the bench in a tight game to score 13 points and grab seven rebounds. He showed some great confidence on the floor and really ran the offense well. Throughout the season, however, that consistent scoring attitude wasn't there. Clearly, you can't expect every freshman to come in and be aggressive on the offensive end but I do believe it is imperative for Kelly to begin to enforce his will more and more when the Zags have the ball.
His skill set as an offensive player is truly unique. A point guard throughout most of his high school career, Kelly's most underrated facet is his ability to distribute the ball. Standing at 7' and feeling comfortable on the outside, he flashed the ability to be able to find cutters a season ago. He's also able to take his man (typically a power forward or center) off the dribble and create his own shot. While he was rarely consistent last year, Kelly has excellent range and his best offensive attribute might be his ability to create the mid-range jumper. A similar player to Kelly, Austin Daye made his biggest impact at Gonzaga taking the ball outside the arc and taking his man off the dribble. While his game is not quite as refined and fluid as Daye's was, Kelly does possess that same "walking matchup nightmare" because he is a 7-footer with an ability to step out.
There are also a few other conditioning and strength things Kelly is still working on. Defensively, his foot speed was well below average last season. Because he is a late bloomer, he was stuck between an odd place last year in that he was too slow to step out and guard the small forward but too inexperienced and physically weak to give Gonzaga consistent minutes playing in the post against forwards/centers. With the arrival of Sam Dower, I expect Kelly to be given a little more free reign to roam the perimeter assuming his defense has improved where he is not a liability to have out there between 20-27 minutes per game.
As Elias Harris' primary backup and someone who should see a ton of minutes in the frontcourt rotation, Kelly could work himself into serious minutes if he proves that he has the confidence in himself offensively. With the skill and upside of Gonzaga's front line, minutes will be scarce and you better believe everyone on the team knows that. Look for Mark Few to really experiment with using Kelly in various sets and pulling him in and out of the paint so that he can expose matchup issues on opposing teams. If this happens, and Kelly is able to work where he is comfortable, I can guarantee they will have a hard time keeping him off the floor.