It's not easy to find a jersey number with the Boston Celtics as 21 retired digits from 00 to 35 hang in the rafters at TD Garden. But rookie Kelly Olynyk did little to quell the obvious (and obviously unfair) comparisons to childhood idol Dirk Nowitzki when he selected No. 41 last month.
The hair! The body! The non-nativeness!
After putting on an offensive exhibition this past week at the Orlando Summer League (more like Kelly O-Clinic, amiright?), those similitudes won't be squashed.
Olynyk averaged a team-best 18 points and 7.8 rebounds over 24 minutes per game, shooting 57.8 percent from the floor. He was named to the all-tournament first team alongside one of this year's lottery picks (Orlando's Victor Oladipo) and a trio of second-year players with NBA experience (Detroit's Andre Drummond, Houston's Terrence Jones, and Oklahoma City's Jeremy Lamb).
Dig deeper into the stats and Olynyk's pro debut is made even more impressive. According to Synergy Sports data (yes, we were just as stunned they track summer league stats), Olynyk averaged a stellar 1.084 points per play, second only to Utah's Chris Roberts (1.113) among players with at least 30 offensive attempts in Orlando.
Geez, even Nowitzki averaged just 1.034 points per play last season (ranking in the mere 93rd percentile among all NBA players).
Joking aside, it's unfair to compare Olynyk to someone whose resume includes 11 All-Star appearances, four All-NBA first-team appearances, a world title, a Finals MVP, and an NBA MVP award. But here's the hyperbole-free takeaway from his first pro debut: Olynyk is skilled enough to make an immediate impact for a Celtics team on a youth movement and even his new coach is setting lofty goals for the 13th overall pick in last month's draft.
"I sat down with him the other day and just told him: A lot of people will use their rookie year or their second year and third year as an excuse for not being the best they can be, because they have this transition/grace period," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Friday during an appearance on Boston sports radio WEEI. "Then there are other guys that make the all-rookie team. And I think that should certainly be a goal, and he's certainly capable. He's a very good player, very skilled player; he's got a great feel for the game. I just like him. I like him as a person. He's a driven young man and I'm looking forward to coaching him."
Let's temper the summer praise ever so slighty: While Olynyk feasted in the post (1.353 points per play easily the best among qualifiers) and on offensive rebounds (1.545 tops again), he was among the worst in pure spot-up shooting (0.429 ppp, 3rd percentile).
Now, Olynyk is clearly a better shooter than the low sample size suggests, but he's also going to have to toughen up in order to thrive around the basket the way he did in Orlando. Likewise, teams were not afraid to go at him on the defensive end, and he's going to have to acclimatize to defending the brick walls that roam NBA frontcouts.
But for at least one week, Olynyk could do no wrong. He made one-footed fadeaways, cleaned up the glass with a soft touch around the hoop, and mixed in the occasional range-showcasing 3-pointer (including one in transition that left varsity teammate Courtney Lee gushing, "Oh man, big boy can stroke it").
Jeff Green did his best to steer the comparison crowd in another direction after dropping in on Wednesday: "Kelly has been playing awesome. His nickname will be Sunshine from 'Remember the Titans,' " said Green. "But I think he's been playing well. I didn't get to watch him a lot at Gonzaga, but he has great footwork. I didn't know he could shoot the ball like he can. I'm looking forward to playing him."
Sorry, Jeff, there's no stopping these Dirk comparisons. While Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has tried his best to limit expectations for Olynyk by suggesting that he envisions him as a complementary player at the next level, not a game-changer, the hype machine is cranking.
With Boston ushering in a youth movement, 22-year-old Olynyk projects to see decent minutes as a backup big man in his rookie season. For a Celtics team that has been short of offensive consistency, particularly off the bench, Olynyk's base skill set will give him a chance to make an immediate impact.
Olynyk maintained a laidback demeanor throughout summer league and knows there is plenty to work on before the team reconvenes for training camp in late September.
"I need to make sure that my shot is real consistent," he said. "That's something I'm personally going to work on a lot. And just getting more athletic -- bigger, faster, stronger. And whatever else they want me to work on, I will."
Call him Baby Dirk if you desire, but Olynyk just needs to stay focused on improving his game. Eventually, the comparisons will all fade away and, if he's half as good as the guy in Dallas that wears No. 41, Olynyk will make a name for himself.