Maybe it was the viral video of him devouring a burrito in four bites. Maybe it was the picture of him wearing a sombrero when he posed with members of Team Canada after a visit earlier this year. For whatever reason, Mexico loves Boston Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk and he loves the country right back.
Olynyk, fresh off scoring a season-high 21 points in Thursday's 114-97 thumping of the Sacramento Kings in Mexico City, was delivering an on-court interview when green-clad fans nearby starting chanting his name. Olynyk instructed the cameraman to pan to the mob, then rushed over to deliver some high-fives before returning to calmly complete the interview.
Olynyk, a Canadian native, would later joke to reporters, "Once I get across any border, my game just elevates to a new level."
The man-bunned Olynyk emptied his tool box in Mexico on Thursday. He burnt the defensively indifferent Kings for 3-pointers when they left him open, broke out the slippery eel in the post, delivered a reverse layup off a strong backdoor cut through two defenders, and even got the one-foot Dirk-like fadeaway to drop.
But his most notable moment came midway through the fourth quarter when Olynyk got rookie Willie Cauley-Stein off his feet with a pump fake at the 3-point stripe then stormed the lane where Air Canada flew straight through Rudy Gay before reaching up to finish an emphatic two-handed slam (Olynyk even indulged by pulling his knees up, Shaq-style, and hanging on the rim a bit briefly after the slam).
Olynyk's effort Thursday is a reminder of what he can be, though Celtics fans know by now not to expect these offensive outbursts on a nightly basis. Olynyk tends to ride waves of confidence and, when he's aggressive like he was from the onset Thursday, he often produces these highlight mixes. Alas, Olynyk had scored just 22 points total over Boston's previous four games.
What helps Olynyk's cause is that, even when he's not scoring, his floor-stretching abilities are helping the Celtics. And he's grown into a surprisingly capable defender whose length is enough to disrupt opponents.
The league's player-tracking data suggests that Olynyk's opponents are shooting a whopping 7.1 percent below their season averages when guarded by the 7-footer this season. Olynyk's opponents are shooting just 36.6 percent overall, including a mere 39 percent on all 2-point shots (or a ridiculous 8.6 percent below those players' averages).
Of all players with at least 145 plays defended this season, Olynyk ranks ninth out of 167 qualifiers in the NBA while allowing a mere 0.701 points per play, according to Synergy Sports' defensive data.
Olynyk's base stat line won't grab you the same way: He's averaging 7.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.1 steals over a mere 17.5 minutes per game. His per-36 stats are in line with his first two seasons, even as he's shooting a career-low 41.1 percent overall (after shooting 47.5 percent last season).
For a player that's most noted for his offensive game, Boston's offensive rating actually dips when Olynyk is on the floor this season (dropping from 102.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench to 98.8 when he's on the floor). And yet Boston's defensive rating really plummets from a still-solid 98.3 points allowed per 100 possessions to an impossibly low 92.8 with Olynyk on the court.
Sure, small samples are at play here. In part due to Boston's overstocked frontcourt, the 24-year-old Olynyk has logged just 315 minutes this season. Even if he stayed healthy enough to appear in all 81 possible games this season (he missed the opener while suspended for the Kevin Love arm-tugging incident in last year's playoffs), Olynyk would still play fewer total minutes than he did in 64 games last season (and barely more than the 1,400 minutes he played in 70 games as a rookie).
Olynyk's minutes could spike a bit more if Boston's frontcourt logjam is eventually alleviated or he can force the issue by playing more consistently at the level displayed on Thursday. It's likely he'll remain in a reserve role and often be paired with Isaiah Thomas because his presence helps open up the court for Boston's offensive spark plug.
Thanks in part to his long hair, which he typically holds back with a thin head band but shunned in favor of the manbun on Thursday, Olynyk resonates with some fans because of the unique look. His pregame handshake with team strength coach Bryan Doo deserves its own highlight reel (as does Olynyk's playfully indulgent Hulk Hogan-like tearing open of his warm-up shirt soon after). What's more, Olynyk's deadpan sense of humor could make him a true star if he develops the sort of consistency that leaves him in front of reporters' microphones more often.
Yes, the Celtics wouldn't mind if the same name-chanting mob that followed Olynyk in Mexico eventually became a staple at games back in the states. It's on Olynyk to figure out how to get that consistency back through U.S. customs.