Before there was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jamal Murray, Brandon Clarke, Andrew Wiggins or even Dwight Powell, Kelly Olynyk was playing on basketball’s biggest stage.
Olynyk grew up in a basketball family in Toronto. His mother, Arlene, was a U Sports women’s basketball referee before becoming the first female scorekeeper in NBA history for the Toronto Raptors in 1995. Olynyk “used to love coming to games, hanging out, watching the Raptors through the years… that’s just what you did” growing up, he told me during a recent Utah Jazz shootaround in Toronto.
His father, Ken, was the head coach of the University of Toronto men’s basketball team and the Canadian junior men’s national team before becoming the athletic director at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. Kelly and his sisters Jesse and Maya all played basketball growing up. According to Olynyk, the family was “in the gym 24/7.”
Olynyk played club basketball with the Scarborough Blues alongside Cory Joseph, the only Canadian who has been in the NBA longer than him. Then, in grade seven, Olynyk and his family moved to join their father in Kamloops, where Olynyk went on to have one of the most illustrious careers in British Columbia high school history, choosing to stay in Canada as he led the South Kamloops Titans to a 36–2 record and a third-place finish at the provincial championships in his senior year, averaging 36 points as he earned the Basketball B.C. Outstanding High School Player of the Year award.
It was a unique upbringing because Olynyk got a taste of both East and West coast basketball, staying in Canada until college as he helped inspire the next generation of Canadian ballers on both coasts — players who are now entering the NBA en masse and filling up the box scores on a nightly basis.
“It’s awesome to see these young kids coming in here and just putting their stamp on the NBA from a Canadian perspective. It’s been unreal,” Olynyk said. “Obviously, it’s good to see Jamal back healthy and playing well. Shai has been unreal. But down the line we have a lot of good players playing well at this level and there’s more coming, so it’s really awesome to see and I’m just excited about the future.”
Olynyk was looked up to by a number of young Canadian ballers not only because the 31-year-old was one of only a handful of Canadians in league when they were growing up, but also because he always played on relevant teams and in consequential playoff games. After being drafted 13th overall out of Gonzaga in 2013, Olynyk spent the first seven and a half seasons of his career in Boston and Miami, where he played in a combined 10 playoff series, reaching the Eastern Conference finals with the Celtics in 2017 and the NBA Finals with the Heat in 2020.
Plus, Olynyk is one of the most versatile players in the league. As a 6-foot-11 big man who could always shoot threes and play-make at a high level, he was always ahead of the NBA’s skill-ball revolution.
Now, Olynyk leads a young Utah Jazz roster as their second oldest player behind Rudy Gay. Yet he is still playing a big role for a good team, starting every game this season and playing 28 minutes a contest as a do-it-all forward who is averaging 12.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and a career-high 3.3 assists on 49.6/40.5/85.3 shooting splits, propelling the Jazz to a surprising 29-31 record.
“When you’re not around someone you make preconceived notions about their personality,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said about Olynyk. “Kelly’s got the long hair and the backwards hats and he has a very cool calm vibe about him off the court, but Kelly is a really fiery competitor. And his versatility as a player has been pretty astounding to me. I knew he was skilled and can dribble, pass and shoot, but at his size to move the way that he does with and without the ball has been very impressive to be around day-to-day… don’t let the backwards hat fool you.”
On top of his success in the NBA, Olynyk has been looked up to because of his commitment to the Canada Basketball program. From playing for Team B.C. growing up and using the provincial program as a launching pad to playing with the senior Canadian national team since 2010, Olynyk is one of the staples of the program and a leader for the new generation to look up to.
“He’s a guy we lean on a lot because of his long history with the team for things that are happening like training camp, friendly games, and travel,” Team Canada head coach Nick Nurse said about Olynyk. “He’s that entrenched in it that he’s one of those guys we kind of talk to about that.”
“He’s really passionate as everyone knows about the program. And he’s really good. He plays to win. He’s a competitor. He plays the right way. Really a joy to coach.”
Olynyk is still in his prime, starting and playing meaningful minutes for the Jazz and Team Canada this past summer. But he is also at a point in his career where he embraces the leadership aspects of his role, helping teach young players the tricks that he has learned along the way from veterans on all the winning teams he has played for.
“We as a staff have leaned on all the veteran players on our team and Kelly is somebody that’s played in a lot of meaningful games, has played in some great organizations,” Hardy said. “He’s played in the playoffs a lot. He’s been a part of winning basketball. And so he’s been able to take those experiences and pass them on to some of his younger teammates.
“He holds himself to a very high standard in terms of how he approaches the game and how he plays. So he’s been a leader for us.”
One of the players who joined the Jazz this offseason with Olynyk is Lauri Markkanen, a 7-foot sharpshooter who at 25 years old just made his first All-Star team. “He’s a good leader,” Markkanen said about Olynyk. “Obviously he’s been in the league for what, 10 years now? So it’s good how he kind of approaches the game and what he does to be ready to play… Obviously, a great guy, too. And so it’s been great being around him.”
For his part, Olynyk has come to embrace the leadership side of things, saying “It’s fun” and that he wants to impart the information and knowledge that people have given to him throughout the years onto the young guys. “You’re always trying to find ways to help the team and [leadership] is one way that I can, whether it’s this team (the Jazz), the national team, whatever team you’re on.”
Despite being in the midst of a tightly contested playoff race with the Jazz, Olynyk said he allows himself to have occasional “bursts of thought” about the 2023 FIBA World Cup, which the Canadians have already qualified for thanks to an impressive 10-0 record in qualification games, with their final two coming later in February.
After missing the 2021 Last Chance Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, B.C. due to contract uncertainty, which the Canadians lost in the semi final and failed to make the Tokyo Olympics, Olynyk is back with the national team for the next four-year cycle, averaging 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists in four wins last summer. He hopes to carry them back to the Olympics for the first time since 2000, when a different player from B.C. was leading the charge.
“Everything accumulates and builds towards that for us in Canada, and we are definitely looking forward to it,” Olynyk said about this summer’s World Cup. “…It’s a special feeling and something that you have to not take for granted because you never know when it’s gonna be the last time.”
Olynyk was talking about playing in front of friends and family in his hometown of Toronto later that night, but he might as well have been talking about his time with the national team.