Kelly Olynyk possesses the savvy and skill set that ages like a fine cabernet, so the end of his playing days are dots on a distant horizon. But his first brush with not having basketball as a release left him with the introspection of someone embarking on a farewell tour.
“Being away from the game, you realize how much you miss it, how much you love it,” he mused when asked what the two-plus months of being off to the side while the NBA’s world revolved without him were like. “I try to tell these young guys, take advantage of every single night. When that stuff’s taken away from you, it’s different.”
If Olynyk was elated to return after missing 33 games, the Pistons were delirious to welcome him back. They missed everything about him. From his size to his scoring punch, his IQ to his versatility. It was all on display in Wednesday’s wild 133-131 win over Sacramento – a win that almost surely was destined to be a loss but for the contributions of the eight-year veteran.
“He has great poise, great pace,” Saddiq Bey said after Olynyk’s 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists, a block and a steal filled all the holes the Pistons envisioned him addressing when Dwane Casey and general manager Troy Weaver targeted the Canadian native as their key veteran acquisition of the off-season. “He’s a threat on all three levels. So the defense takes away something, we’re trying to exploit that and have him in the action, knowing he’s going to make the right decision – whether he shoots, passes, rolls, screens or pops. We know he’s going to make the right decision.”
By a matter of a few months, Olynyk is the Pistons oldest player at 30, turning 31 after the season ends in April, a few months ahead of teammates Rodney McGruder and Cory Joseph. But Olynyk’s smarts, size and touch will allow him to play several more seasons so long as he avoids any serious injury. And so far, he has. In fact, when he suffered a Grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee on Nov. 14, it was the first prolonged in-season injury absence of his career.
“I had shoulder surgery back in Boston, but it was in the off-season,” he said. “Not during the season like this when you’re focused and you want to be out there helping your guys. It’s just good to be back, man.”
Because it was Olynyk’s first consequential in-season injury – and to a knee, perhaps the one body part hardest for an athlete to fully have faith restored in its soundness – the rehabilitation process dragged. But Casey was confident that whenever Olynyk became satisfied he was ready to return, he’d have instant impact.
“Kelly’s a smart player,” he said. “It’s not going to take him long. He knows all the positions on the court. The main thing with him is going to be conditioning.”
Cade Cunningham has shared the floor with Olynyk sparingly, the rookie missing virtually all of training camp and five of the 10 games Olynyk played before going down. And they didn’t overlap much in the win at Sacramento, either, given Cunningham’s persistent foul trouble that limited him to 21 minutes. But from glimpses of Olynyk and what he saw as the veteran started working into the mix in recent practices, he’s thrilled to add another high-IQ weapon with the same three-level scoring versatility he possesses to the fold.
“He’s already made a big impact,” Cunningham said before Olynyk’s return. “Just having him back around more in practice, he knows so much about the game. And he can obviously play. Whenever he’s able to get out there with us and get up and down, we’re going to be a lot better. I’m excited to be able to have him back.”
Olynyk’s emotions went past excited to grateful as he helped the Pistons to a win that ran their January record to 6-5. If he was ever inclined to take it for granted, those days are over.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s a grind, just every day working to get better, taking one step forward, one step forward. Life without basketball is boring.”