Updated Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 12:57 PM
SPOKANE — While Gonzaga was generating a 26-win season and another NCAA tournament appearance a year ago, something remarkable was taking place in a room nearby, something that could rock college hoops in 2012-13.
Kelly Olynyk, and tennis balls.
Olynyk's is a story almost unheard-of in today's college basketball, where patience and perseverance have gone the way of the set shot. Nobody does what he did, and if you think that's overstating it, well, more on that later.
By now, you've seen enough headlines and handmade signs — one female fan regularly hoists "Another Olynyk Clinic" — to understand that the 7-foot Canadian leads seventh-ranked Gonzaga in scoring at 18.2 points a game, and, for just about everybody else outside the Zags family, he's at the top of the list of surprises as well.
"We all knew something special was coming," insists Travis Knight, Gonzaga's strength and conditioning coach.
Largely, that was inside information. One preseason magazine listed four Gonzaga players on its first, second and third West Coast Conference teams, none of them Olynyk.
Only on the practice floor, and in Knight's world of cones, medicine balls and tennis balls, was it apparent that a third-year player sitting out a developmental season as a redshirt was going to blossom into a force that could help the Zags play long into March.
"Yeah," Olynyk says, looking back at the perception of him, "I think I was maybe a little underrated."
Even still. Olynyk (O-LINN-ik) must be the most mispronounced, misspelled key figure on a top-10 basketball team this season, probably fitting for a player whose ability has usually exceeded his publicity.
He was born and raised in Toronto, and came west to Kamloops, in interior British Columbia, when his dad Ken became athletic director at Thompson Rivers University. Kelly was a point guard through much of high school before a dramatic growth spurt — seven inches in a year — around his junior season changed everything.
He made provincial and national teams and spent time in grade 12 at the National Elite Developmental Academy outside Toronto, during which he was on campus at Syracuse and Michigan. But he was virtually a slam-dunk for Gonzaga, which he had visited several times with team camps.
"I loved the atmosphere around here," he said. "It was a great program, the coaches were real good, they were always making the tournament. They were winning. Every kid wants to be a part of something like that."
The Zags loved his height and his uncommon feel for the game. But he was slender and would get knocked off his feet easily, and his first two years at the school raised more doubts than they settled.
In spring 2011, Olynyk was confused. He had played for the Canadian national team, yet he had averaged a modest 4.8 points in two years at Gonzaga and now he faced a thicket of NBA-caliber big men on the roster in Robert Sacre, Elias Harris and Sam Dower. There was considerable speculation that he would go the way of two other Canadians — Bol Kong and Manny Arop — who had transferred.
On the streets and in the malls around Spokane, Olynyk concedes, "You'd get that question a bunch, I'd say."
Together, he and Gonzaga coach Mark Few, in concert with Olynyk's dad, hatched the idea of a redshirt year, after which Sacre would be gone. If there was an advocate for the Zags during the decision-making of whether to transfer, it was Ken Olynyk.
"He had spent time and chosen Gonzaga because of the school, the program and the coaches," said the senior Olynyk. "I said, 'Things shouldn't change that much. You have to try to figure out how you can make this happen.' "
Gonzaga has had a history of success with redshirts, but not one so deep into a career. For his part, Few was determined that Olynyk wouldn't merely be passing time, assigning him game-charting responsibilities on the bench. On the practice floor, he was grinding daily against the bullish Sacre, now a reserve center for the Lakers.
But the real foundation of his success was being laid with Knight, who recognized that Olynyk's limitations were related to the high-school growth spurt, "almost as if his mind wanted to do something, and his body couldn't yet," says Knight.
They went to work.
"About half of what we did was lift, hard and heavy, on every body part, until he couldn't lift his arms," Knight says. "The other half was developing his neural system, the communication between his brain and hands and legs and feet."
Enter the tennis balls. From close range, Knight would throw balls marked "R" or "L" at Olynyk, requiring him to catch it with his right or left hand. Others, he numbered, and if the second one represented an increase of at least three over the first ball, it was a command to move to his right or left.
They winged it. They'd concoct stuff with medicine balls. Says Olynyk, "We'd make up different drills. He'd put me through stuff that, I swear, no one has ever done before."
The workouts fed Olynyk's natural innovative bent. "As a player, he's so creative," says Knight. "When a team figures out how to play him one way, Kelly is never stuck."
Gradually, Few glimpsed the Olynyk he had envisioned at Gonzaga, not the perimeter-oriented player "who was kind of married to the three-point line" his first two years. Few had been through this with big man Josh Heytvelt, who never really took to the concept of banging inside.
In practice, Olynyk, playing on the scout team, flourished against Sacre with his newfound skills, occasionally prompting a wry admonition from Few.
"Sometimes he'd start improvising on offense," Few said. "I'd have to tell him, 'You're supposed to be Portland's four man. Don't be you.' There were more than one of those conversations.
"But the long and the short of it was, you could see it coming."
And when it came, following a three-game suspension to start this season for a violation of Gonzaga's code of conduct, it came in a flood. He hit a late three to help stunt a comeback by Washington State. He scored 21 points in the second half at Oklahoma State in Gonzaga's best win of the season. He dropped 33 and 31 on Santa Clara and Saint Mary's in consecutive games. He had a ridiculous night against BYU last week — 26 points on nine of nine from the field and eight of eight from the foul line.
Olynyk has averaged 20 points since Dec. 1. His .658 shooting percentage ranks fourth in the NCAA.
He could be headed for a unique distinction. According to Mike Douchant, former college-basketball editor at The Sporting News who runs a website called Collegehoopedia.com, Olynyk would be the first player in history to become an All-American — AP third team would qualify — after redshirting following two seasons of Division I play.
Pro scouts are booking Gonzaga games to take a closer look, needing to decide whether Olynyk's instincts and superior hand skills outweigh his average athleticism.
"If somebody said, you're going to be the 15th pick, we guarantee it, then that would be a discussion," said Ken Olynyk recently, adding that an early out hasn't been his son's focus.
In a four-day stretch, meanwhile, Kelly Olynyk counted interview requests that reached double digits, from as far away as Montreal. He has a story to tell: Sometimes in the here-today-gone-tonight world of college basketball, there's another side to it.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
Gonzaga @ Loyola Marymount, 8 p.m., ESPN2
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk rocks the arena with a jam against Kansas State in a game at KeyArena in December. The Zags won, 68-52.
DEAN HARE / AP
Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynyk, center, drives between a pair of Washington State defenders. Olynyk could be an NBA draft pick.
DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES