There is a sizable group of players that could lay claim to the title of Gonzaga’s most important player in a decade that saw the Bulldogs achieve five No. 1 rankings in the AP Poll, reach (at least) the Sweet 16 for five straight years, have seven players drafted to the NBA, and break through to the program’s first Final Four and National Championship game appearance.
One Zag’s impact, however, was felt both while he was on the court in a navy and blue uniform and perhaps even more so long after his final game in The Kennel.
Kelly Olynyk’s unusual decision, in collaboration with the coaching staff, to take a redshirt developmental year during the 2011-12 season after already playing for two years at Gonzaga changed the trajectory of his career and the program.
Can a player who averaged 4.8 ppg and 3.3 rpg over his first two season at Gonzaga truly be named the program’s player of the decade? After all, Brandon Clarke produced the second best player efficiency rating (not just amongst Zags, but of all Division I players) during the decade; Nigel Williams-Goss was the man at the helm of the Final Four squad who helped cement Gonzaga’s place with the game’s elite; Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer put the 2015-16 Zags on their backs and ensured that Gonzaga’s tournament streak continued while providing monster performances with regularity; and, Przemek Karnowski and Josh Perkins became the winningest basketball players in NCAA history. It was a rich decade of talent and achievement, to be sure, but it was Olynyk who started it all.
Most of you know the story by know, but for those who don’t, let’s look back to the beginning of the 2010s. Olynyk was an afterthought who was buried on the depth chart behind Elias Harris, Rob Sacre, and Sam Dower. A gangly 7-footer who struggled to dominate in the paint against bigger and more explosive athletes couldn’t be trusted with a prominent role in Mark Few’s rotation. Frustrated with his role, Olynyk considered transferring out of the program before being convinced by both his father and the coaching staff who made the uncommon move of re-recruiting a player already in the fold. A plan was laid out to take Olynyk out of the cauldron of the season so he could focus solely on individual development.
When he emerged out of the shadows of his redshirt year in the fall of 2012, Olynyk was a player transformed. Gone was the lanky small-time role player, and in his place was an imposing first team All-American who led Gonzaga to its first ever No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll and No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament en route to becoming a first round NBA draft pick. And so, the Olynyk Clinic was born.
Olynyk’s transformation did not go unnoticed, and one year later Kyle Wiltjer transferred to Gonzaga from Kentucky after two seasons on John Calipari’s bench. With Olynyk as a persuasive Exhibit A for the coaching staff’s recruiting pitches, Wiltjer became the next great success story of the Olynyk Clinic. After Wiltjer came Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams, both of whom traced their respective decisions to transfer to Gonzaga back to the staff’s success in developing Olynyk and Wiltjer. Williams-Goss and Williams gave the following quotes to Yahoo Sports in 2017:
“That was a huge factor,” Williams-Goss said. “Their redshirt plan for me was second to none compared to all the other schools I was looking at. I feel like they had a very deliberate plan from day one as far as what I was going to work on during my redshirt year. The success they had with Kelly and Kyle was a huge part of why I came.”
“I was a big fan of that team,” Williams said. “I watched them play when I was in high school. I saw what he (Olynyk) did and I saw what Kyle Wiltjer did and that sold me right away that you can get better here.”
When Williams visited Gonzaga, the staff presented him with a similarly detailed plan to make use of his redshirt year, one that included adding muscle, improving his ball-handling, developing his right hand and increasing his defensive mobility. Soon after that visit, Williams committed to the Zags, choosing them despite interest from SMU, Georgetown, Kansas and Michigan State.
It didn’t end there as Brandon Clarke became the next graduate of the Olynyk Clinic, transforming from an under-recruited and largely unknown player to a dominant force in college basketball for Gonzaga’s latest great team before he became an NBA first round pick as well.
Gonzaga has been blessed with a lot of great players over the last 10 years, and it wouldn’t be right to diminish the contributions and achievements of so many great Zags. It would also be unfair to ignore the contributions made by the staff in developing their players and guiding the program to the place it is today. But as far as identifying who was Gonzaga’s most important player of the decade, you can almost draw a straight line from Gonzaga’s success today to the transformation of Kelly Olynyk. For that reason, the 7-foot long-haired headband enthusiast is my Zag of the decade. I can’t wait to see who will take that title in the next 10 years.