Back in February, Evan Turner was asked whom he thought might win a Boston Celtics intrasquad dunk contest. When no obvious candidate sprang to mind, Turner surveyed all the stalls inside Boston's locker room and, his eyes landing on Kelly Olynyk, he turned serious and noted, "Kelly gets bouncy, to tell you the truth."
The 7-foot Olynyk, better known for his floor-stretching perimeter game than his hops, is an occasional dunker at best. The NBA's shot-tracking data credited him with only three slams this season entering Wednesday's game against the Charlotte Hornets. But Olynyk showcased his jumping ability midway through the third quarter when he skied for a ferocious putback slam that left Boston's bench staggering in delight.
"I keep telling these guys, the bounce is real," Olynyk playfully told reporters in Charlotte after the game as starting frontcourt partner Jared Sullinger, standing nearby, laughed and acknowledged Olynyk's dunking ability. "The bounce is real. They don't see it."
It was Sullinger's 3-point attempt, which found front iron then kicked off the glass, that set up Olynyk's highlight moment. Olynyk crashed from the weakside and outleaped Charlotte's Marvin Williams while corralling the ball with his right hand and delivering the emphatic putback in one motion.
Olynyk puffed out his chest and exulted, with Sullinger joking that Olynyk likely scared whoever caught his menacing stare into the crowd after the slam. Boston rookie R.J. Hunter threw his hands on his head in disbelief and the entire Celtics bench rose and did the hold-me-back celebration after a rare glimpse of "Air Canada."
"He's always dunking in practice and we always joke about how he never dunks in a game," Avery Bradley told reporters. "It was a great dunk, a great highlight. It'll probably be like No. 3 on ESPN."
Echoed Celtics coach Brad Stevens: "As I've heard Evan Turner describe, [Olynyk is] one of our better 'sneaky dunkers.' He does have a little bit of lift that he brings out a couple times per month."
Olynyk's highlight moment shouldn't overshadow his overall effort. Earning another spot start with Amir Johnson missing his second straight game due to plantar fasciitis, Olynyk finished with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting (including two dunks) while adding nine rebounds, three assists and two steals over 30 minutes. Olynyk was a team-best plus-17 in plus/minus.
Take away a scoreless dud in Detroit last week and Olynyk has had a December to remember. In 11 appearances this month, Olynyk is averaging 13.7 points on 53.6 percent shooting, including 45.7 percent shooting beyond the 3-point arc. That's a noticeable jump in production after averaging 6.6 points on 37.3 percent shooting over 16 games in November.
"I just think he's improved daily," Stevens said. "You can see his work ethic, he works pretty hard, and he's got a good kind of confidence about him right now and he's playing well."
For all the hype about his offense, the numbers that really jump off the page for Olynyk this season are his defensive stats. Boston's defensive rating of 97.7 points per 100 possessions already ranks second in the NBA behind only the San Antonio Spurs, but that number drops to 96.8 when Olynyk is on the court. The league's player-tracking data suggests that through 26 games, Olynyk was limiting the players he's defending to 39.9 percent shooting, or 4.9 percent below those players' season averages. Not only were those players shooting 9.3 percent below their averages from greater than 15 feet (where Olynyk's length can help bother shooters), but Olynyk was actually holding his own near the basket (limiting opponents to 58.9 percent shooting, or 0.5 percent lower than their season average, less than six feet from the basket).
Olynyk still has plenty of strides to make on the defensive side, particularly when big men try to take advantage of him around the basket, but he's made progress. Consider that the players he was guarding last season shot 45.6 percent overall (meaning he's held opponents 5.7 percent lower this season).
Olynyk still needs to improve as a rebounder. He grabs only 15.4 percent of all available defensive caroms, which is ninth on the team behind the likes of James Young (15.7), Turner (15.9), and the rest of Boston's big men. But it's his dunk that will land on SportsCenter and the evening highlight reel. Yes, just two days after Olynyk's little jab-step jumper left Minnesota rookie Karl-Anthony Towns on skates (Olynyk pleaded that Towns, "probably tripped"), Olynyk has been a veritable highlight machine.
Maybe now he can convince his teammates that the bounce is most definitely real.