PHILADELPHIA — They are an odd couple, the 7-foot first-round pick from Gonzaga by way of Canada, and the 5-8 point guard from Missouri who was undrafted and needed a strong summer league just to earn a training camp invitation.
Celtics rookies Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey have grown closer as the season has progressed, bonding during their first-year journeys, each experiencing the highs and lows of an initial NBA season. As the Celtics’ rebuilding season winds down, with the penultimate game of the season Monday night against the Sixers, Olynyk and Pressey are each soaring up. They teamed Saturday night to beat the Cavaliers in Cleveland when their club was decimated by injuries.
Olynyk equaled his career high with 25 points and Pressey notched his second consecutive game with at least 13 assists and knocked down a couple of key jumpers in the 111-99 win. While the Celtics are headed for a likely top five draft pick, with veteran players nursing nagging injuries, Olynyk and Pressey are enjoying the game and the increased opportunity.
In six April games, Pressey is averaging 5.8 points and 7.5 assists, including 26 in the past two contests. Olynyk is averaging 13.5 points in April (his first double-digit month) along with 7 rebounds and is shooting 53.3 percent. While the losses have been difficult of late and the season is dragging towards its conclusion, a caveat in the final month is the development of the team’s younger core.
“I kind of feel like he thinks like me,” Pressey said of Olynyk. “Some of the passes that I see, he sees it as well. That just comes from him being able to pass the ball as well. We just click. I can’t really explain it. He just knows. He has a knack of being in the spots where I’m going to pass it. I try to find him as much as possible.”
If a veteran doesn’t ask Pressey to nab a Gatorade out of the team’s locker room cooler, he’ll ask Olynyk. Being first-year players, dealing with the inconsistent playing time, prolonged slumps, and the uncertainty of belonging at the highest level, Pressey and Olynyk have found they have more in common and a comfort level that’s soaring.
“Since summer league we’ve been with each other,” Pressey said. “I’ve have some ups and downs. He’s had some ups and downs. We’ve kind of feel for each other like all rookies should. It’s kind of fun to see us both doing well because we know what each other’s doing off the court, working as hard as we can to get to where we are now. We’re just with each other every single day almost for the past seven months.”
Olynyk sparkled during the team’s summer league stint in Orlando and was expected to carry that over into the regular season. But typical rookie inconsistency along with a 10-game absence because of a sprained ankle derailed his first half. Since the All-Star break, Olynyk is averaging 10.5 points, 6 rebounds, and is shooting 50 percent from the field.
He has become a dependable staple in coach Brad Stevens’s rotation.
“I thought the movement was great [Saturday night] and I thought Kelly was really good,” Stevens said. “Our offense has gotten better throughout the course of the year. The best teams I’ve ever been around have had a balance of action and motion and I think our guys are finding guys and it helps from Kelly playing that way at [power forward] because he kind of opens up things for everybody else.”
Olynyk is rather unassuming about his talent but he is a tireless worker. He wowed the crowd and those Celtics faithful when he launched a Dirk Nowitzki-like, one-legged stepback jumper to beat the shot clock in the third quarter. Olynyk has drawn comparisons to the perennial All-Star because of his height and perimeter shooting ability and he is beginning to show flashes of that potential.
“It’s just something I’ve been working on a little bit, get the shot off, especially with these types of athletes,” he said. “It’s stuff you gotta work on and I had the opportunity to bring it out and luckily it went in.”
As a youth in Kamloops, British Columbia, Olynyk used to watch NBA games and mimic the moves he saw, such as the Nowitzki stepback. Because Canada would show local hero Steve Nash’s games while he was with the Dallas Mavericks, Olynyk got an extensive chance to watch Nowitzki as well.
“You never want to be satisfied; you always want to get better every day, especially when the league is this competitive, this high level,” he said. “It’s every player’s dream to be able to play through stuff, make mistakes, keep going, learn, grow. Just that experience is vital to the growth of a player. I couldn’t be happier with the opportunity that was presented [Saturday].”