The transformation of Gonzaga junior forward Kelly Olynyk from turnover-prone backup to Wooden Award candidate owes a lot to hard work—and a lot more than you'd think to baseball. When the 7-foot former guard from Kamloops, B.C., decided to redshirt in 2011--12 to address the difficulty he had staying balanced and in control while playing in the post, he became a special project for the team's trainer, Travis Knight, a former Zags second baseman. Knight recognized the cause of the problem: It was taking Olynyk, who was just three years removed from a seven-inch growth spurt, too long for his brain to communicate with the rest of his body. Enter former Mariners slugger Edgar Martinez. Or rather, the pitch-recognition drills the DH once practiced to increase his reaction time at the plate.
After a daily hour in Gonzaga's weight room, Knight and Olynyk would head to a court to practice Olynyk's footwork with a series of tennis ball drills that Knight adapted from Martinez's workout. Knight would mark tennis balls R and L and then toss one to Olynyk, who would have to read the letter on the spinning ball and catch it with the corresponding hand while running, say, from half-court to the free throw line. Once Olynyk got comfortable doing that, Knight changed what the letter meant. R might indicate run out to the corner and spot up for a three, while L meant sprint to the elbow and shoot a jumper. Adding balls marked 1 through 6 required Olynyk to process increasingly complex information quickly. "Once Kelly could occupy some of his mental effort with things like making reads, his feet started doing what they were supposed to be doing on their own," says Knight.
An unexpected bonus: Olynyk's vertical increased from 32 inches to 39. "I think he always had the ability to jump that high," says Knight. "But everything wasn't firing on all cylinders. Once we improved that rate [of communication], everything opened up."
Olynyk 2.0 is not only the most efficient high-usage player in the nation (he averages 17.5 points on 65.2% shooting in just 25.7 minutes a game), but he's also a deft passer and a reliable rebounder (7.2) who can post up defenders, guard perimeter players, hit the three (34.6%), make free throws (78.5%), throw down dunks and reject shots. The guy who once played rugby "as a noncontact sport," according to his dad, Ken, has evolved into a bit of a bruiser too. "Kelly's attitude has changed," says Matt Santangelo, a radio broadcaster for the Zags. "He's kind of a tough guy now, protecting his turf."
After all that hard work, there's a lot worth protecting.