BOSTON -- The game has slowed down for Boston Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk, and his confidence has grown. The latter part was evidenced last week when Olynyk turned to greet a large pack of reporters waiting near his locker while wearing a spectacular tie-dyed version of the popular Three Wolf Moon shirt.
That's a bold look for a rookie, but Olynyk pulled it off. It helps that he has been turning heads on the court lately as well. In three games this month since returning from a toe sprain, Olynyk is averaging 16.7 points, 6 rebounds and 1.7 assists over a mere 20.7 minutes per game. He's shooting 58.6 percent from the floor and teaming with Jared Sullinger to power Boston's second unit.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens is guarded with his praise of players, often prefacing compliments with suggestions that the player in focus has plenty of room for growth. And he surely feels that way about Olynyk. But Stevens' words lately have been telling about the rookie's progress.
After Friday's win over the Brooklyn Nets, Stevens said, "Kelly Olynyk is playing great." At practice the next day while discussing the progress of the team's younger players, he noted, "I think Kelly is the one to point to, for sure."
The Celtics moved up three spots to land Olynyk with the 13th pick in June's draft. He shined in the Orlando Summer League, setting rookie expectations unfairly high. Like most first-year players, it took time for Olynyk to get acclimated to the speed of the NBA game, and it didn't help that he endured a severe ankle sprain early in the season.
But Olynyk started coming on strong just before the All-Star break and had a solid outing in that weekend's Rising Stars Challenge. In the month's span since Feb. 10, Olynyk has averaged 12.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 22.8 minutes per game over nine appearances. He is shooting 50 percent from the floor in that span and 40.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
"I think it's a little bit of everything, just settling down, getting comfortable, getting that mindset, attacking," Olynyk said. "And just realizing that that's what I need to do to help the team and help that second unit."
Dig deeper into the numbers, and Olynyk's play really pops. According to Synergy Sports data, Olynyk is averaging 1.027 points per play over his past nine games. For comparison, Kevin Durant averages 1.117 points per play; Brandon Bass tops the Celtics' regulars at 0.961 points per play. Olynyk isn't seeing heavy minutes, but he has been extremely efficient when he's out there. He's less hesitant with his shot, a product of being a focal point on a second unit that encourages him and Sullinger to be go-to weapons.
One of the biggest worries about Olynyk coming out of college was his rebounding, but he has been relentless on the glass lately. Olynyk's total rebound percentage over the past month is 17.2 percent, which, if maintained, would be the best on the team. Sullinger leads for the season at 16.6 percent.
The Olynyk/Sullinger combo was one that Stevens liked as far back as training camp. Sullinger spent most of the season as a starter, however, limiting the time the two would overlap. Now, after both had to work their way back from recent injuries, Stevens has brought them both off the bench given the way they complement each other on the floor.
The team's offensive rating with Olynyk on the floor this season jumps 4 ½ points when Sullinger is paired with him, and the defensive rating drops nearly 5 points. Boston's rebounding rates skyrocket, and the pace quickens. For the season, Olynyk is minus-80 when Sullinger is on the bench during his floor time and plus-37 when the two are paired.
The two young bigs likely are key pieces of the Celtics' future. It seems reasonable to expect Sullinger to ascend back to the starting lineup eventually, but the two could continue to overlap with Olynyk an early option off the bench.
"Jared can really pass the ball," Olynyk said. "He's got a great IQ. He's a great guy to play with because he can shoot the ball as well, space the floor. Stuff just opens up when he's on the floor. We played a lot together at the beginning of the year as well. He's a great guy to have."
Sullinger echoed that sentiment.
"We've got some secrets out there that we know how to score the basketball when we're in the game together," he said. "Y'all won't get all my secrets. You probably won't get any of them. But we're just out there playing hard."
The Three Wolf Moon shirt gained popularity because of fictional powers that reviewers playfully attributed to it. It's also hard to ignore how well Olynyk has played since he debuted his shirt three games ago.
Truth be told, there's no real secret to Olynyk's emergence. It's the natural rookie progression. It takes time to adapt at this level, but Olynyk's body and mind have caught up, and now his natural talents are taking over.
There's still room for growth in his defense, something that must improve in order for his floor time to increase. But you can see strides in recent games. He's not as quick to leave his feet and he's using his length to bother shooters when he contests perimeter shots.
A reporter told Olynyk earlier this month that he's among the rookie leaders in fouls. When another reporter asked Olynyk to gauge his rookie season, he deadpanned, "I guess I've been fouling a lot."
The rookie whistles eventually fade. The game slows down, and then it's on the player to make the most of his opportunity. That's exactly what Olynyk has done lately.