PROVO — One week after facing Saint Mary’s boogeyman Matthew Dellavedova, BYU finds itself on stage with another in Gonzaga’s 7-foot Kelly Olynyk Thursday night.
The Cougars haven’t done well against WCC icons who wear capes, deflect bullets off their chests, leap tall buildings in single bounds, make ridiculous game-winning impossible shots and play perfect games.
That’s Olynyk. He might as well come from DC Comics as far as the Cougars are concerned. A guy with a name that looks like letters in a Scrabble tray, Olynyk is somebody Marvel could easily make into a character. In BYU’s first meeting with Olynyk in Spokane, Wash., the junior scored 26 points by going 9-for-9 from the field and 8-for-8 from the line. He couldn’t do that in practice with nobody guarding him. That night, nobody was.
Perhaps that will be incentive for BYU senior Brandon Davies on Senior Night when the No. 2 Zags invade town. Gonzaga is the highest ranked team to ever visit this arena and Olynyk is a major reason.
I asked BYU assistant coach Mark Pope, a former NBA veteran with the Pacers and Bucks and member of one of Kentucky’s national championship teams, what makes Olynyk so good.
“One comment is that he doesn’t have to play to be good,” Pope said.
“It is like how I felt playing in high school,” Pope said. “That you don’t really have to do all the little tricks of the game to create space for yourself or get open or get in position for rebounds because you are just way better than the other guys. He’s just better than everybody else.”
Olynyk is projected to be a first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft. He’s a former member of the Canadian National team. He played most of his high school career as a point guard before he grew seven inches his junior year. He uses that agility and mindset to play big with a guard’s mentality.
Before BYU’s last game with Gonzaga, Pope got in a conversation with a friend, Matt Santangelo, a star guard for the Zags in 2000 and current color commentator for Gonzaga radio broadcasts. Pope asked Santangelo if Olynyk was as good as he appeared to be.
“Mark, you have not seen 50 percent of his game because he doesn’t have to go to it. Everything is just so easy for him at this level.”
Pope believes there’s a lot of truth to that. “I’ve heard he is the best shooter on his team from range. Occasionally you’ll see him handle the ball up the court and cross it between his legs and hit a three. I think I saw it against Santa Clara. You just shake your head. That is not a kid who is testing his range, that’s a kid who is totally comfortable."
Olynyk is one of the big pieces in why Gonzaga is No. 2 and headed for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament come March. A team with outstanding coaching, great role players, deadly shooters and a big presence like Olynyk, well — you get the idea how tough tonight’s game is for this Cougar team.
Pope knows enough about big men to appreciate the nuances in Olynyk’s game.
“One of the things about him is he’s not a guy who traditionally has to get two hands to the rim,” said Pope. “When we’re recruiting, those kind of guys scare me because when (they're) going against higher competition in college, (they aren't) going to be able to get two hands to the rim all the time.
“This dude (Olynyk) gets two hands to the rim and he doesn’t really have to have any post moves. He's just quick and clever enough and slippery enough and creative enough that he finds ways to get two hands to the rim. He’s on a different level.”
Olynyk has been rattling off 20-point scoring games since December and currently ranks No. 2 in the NCAA in field goal accuracy at 66 percent. He is easily the most accurate shooter in the country above 6-foot-6. The closest 7-footer to Olynyk in accuracy is Cody Zeller of Indiana at 58.6 percent.
Could this be Olynyk’s final year with Gonzaga? Will he turn pro after the NCAA Tournament? Will the Cougars be done with him after just one year, since he redshirted last season?
Well, if somebody tells him he’s going in the top 10 or 12, I’d say he’ll go. But Pope wouldn’t guess.
“That is up to him. He’s fully capable of leaving after this year if he wants to. There’s no doubt about that. But other players like Tim Duncan have decided to play it out. I don’t know him so I don’t know what he’s thinking. If the question is could he go now, I would think the answer would have to be an overwhelming yes.”
Pope says if the Zag big man starts working out for NBA teams at pre-draft camps, they will extract out of him what he doesn’t really need to show in college.
“When he starts working out at camps, if everything I’ve heard is true and what I’ve seen is true, he will blow people’s minds. If we haven’t seen all his game, at those workouts, they will find your whole game. If what people say is true, there will be a lot of general managers (that) walk out of the gym shaking their heads.”
That, in a nutshell, is what awaits the Cougars tonight.
If BYU has any pride at all, they won’t let him go perfect on them again. And do so with only part of his game.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].