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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Kelly Olynyk’s play leaps into a higher level

An emphatic dunk against the Hornets Wednesday spoke volumes about Kelly Olynyk’s progress — and sent a message to his teammates.
Chuck Burton/Associated Press
An emphatic dunk against the Hornets Wednesday spoke volumes about Kelly Olynyk’s progress — and sent a message to his teammates.

It’s funny what happens when the light finally shines, when the game slows down and you’re totally comfortable in your own NBA skin.

So when Kelly Olynyk leaped over Charlotte’s Marvin Williams and completed a one-handed putback jam Wednesday, that light shone brightly throughout Time Warner Cable Arena, so much so that Olynyk stared back at his teammates, seemingly as surprised at his feat as they were.

For a 7-footer, Olynyk has not shown much lift during his three-year NBA career, to the point where his teammates even doubted he could make a contested dunk during a game. So when he slammed down Jared Sullinger’s miss to give the Celtics a 63-50 lead, he howled back at the bench, “The bounce is real.”

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It was an inside joke.

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Teammate Evan Turner is one of Olynyk’s few advocates regarding his jumping ability. Turner claimed Olynyk could soar in practice, but that needed to translate to games. It finally did.

This has been a career-best month for Olynyk, who has averaged 13.7 points per game in December on 53.6 percent shooting, including 45.7 percent from the 3-point line. All of those plays Olynyk has made in practice are finally consistently occurring in games.

Flash back to Monday, when a simple jab step from Olynyk sent potential Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns of Minnesota stumbling back before Olynyk drained a midrange jumper.

The game is opening up for Olynyk as much as it’s slowing down.

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“It’s definitely comfortable and I’m settling in,” Olynyk said. “I wouldn’t call it experimenting, but just testing the waters here and there with different moves, seeing how people react.

“I think people respect the jab because earlier in that game I was taking the ball to the hoop, getting fouled, making threes. When you’re doing all those things, it’s tough to guard.”

Olynyk has battled confidence issues and a lack of aggression over the years. He seemingly has had the skills to be a productive, consistent scorer, but he has shown it only in flashes.

But he has received consistent minutes from coach Brad Stevens and is maximizing his opportunity.

“I just think he’s improved daily,” Stevens said. “You can see his work ethic, he works pretty hard. He’s got a good kind of confidence about him right now.”

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More playing time could be a factor. Olynyk is averaging six more minutes per game this month than in November. He is allowed to make early mistakes and not worry about a quick hook.

“Especially when you’re starting, you’ve got a lot of opportunities out there,” he said. “You can make a mistake or two, bounce back. It’s different than coming off the bench. Whatever situation you’re in, you have to be as confident as you can.”

Olynyk started the past two games because of the foot injury to Amir Johnson. In those 59 minutes, he scored 39 points on 14-for-20 shooting. Olynyk has found out at the highest level that the mental game is equally as important as the physical game.

Hesitating, passing up shots, and being careless with the ball are all signs of weakness. Olynyk said he has learned that the NBA is so much more than having game; it’s the ability to consistently display that game.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “All I knew was it was going to be the highest level of basketball you’ve ever played.

“It definitely takes a little while to get used to it. But once you’re up here for a little while and you realize what it takes and what you need to be successful, once you start figuring it out, it’s a lot of fun.”

The growls to the bench, the tip jams and jab steps, are all signs of increased confidence, that the game is finally becoming easier for Olynyk.

“It definitely starts to click, and what makes it click is when all the guys are playing basketball the right way,” he said. “Coach Stevens has our team playing basketball the right way. You’ve got to be self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-driven if you want to be great.

“That’s what it takes in this league.”

Opportunity is also a major factor. The increased playing time has allowed Olynyk to relax, not feel so pressured to make plays immediately. With that peace of mind, he has been able to make the plays his teammates have seen only in practice.

“It’s tough playing spot minutes here and there because everyone wants to play more,” he said. “You want to have a big role and a big contribution in your team’s success. That’s what everybody strives for.

“It’s a lot of fun when you’re out there getting to play and do the stuff you did growing up. Winning with a team where everyone is sharing the success is something special.”

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.