MIAMI – Perhaps the biggest leap of faith the Miami Heat took during a very busy summer of 2017 was with 7-foot Kelly Olynyk.
The Heat has just been stung by free-agent target Gordon Hayward, who shunned Miami to rejoin his former college coach, Brad Stevens, and sign with the Boston Celtics.
The plan then was to re-sign forward James Johnson and guard Dion Waiters, and attempt to pick up the option on guard Wayne Ellington’s contract. But there was money remaining and the Heat had to move fast.
That’s when the idea of Olynyk, a versatile big man whose skills perfectly fit today’s NBA, came to mind. The Celtics had waived Olynyk to make room for Haywood and Pat Riley wasted no time, contacting Olynyk’s agent while flying back to Miami from the West Coast after learning they lost out on the Hayward sweepstakes.
“I still always go back to Kelly and that free-agent call that he and I jumped on before he made the decision,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said following the season. “(We) really recruited him but also told him how much we respected him because of the battles that we’d been in and thought that this could be a great fit for him, to transform and become even more, with a little bit more opportunity. And he bought into it wholeheartedly with both feet.”
The fit was better than envisioned as Olynyk had his best season averaging 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists while playing a point-center role. And at 27, the Heat and Olynyk believe he has plenty of room to grow.
“I definitely had the best year of my career and I’ll keep building on that this summer, hopefully keep expanding my game. … Just kind of taking that same role that I have this year and just expanding it,” said Olynyk, who was the Heat’s third-leading scorer during the playoff series against the 76ers, which lasted just five games. “I’m going to do those things better.”
Olynyk will split time this summer between Miami and his home in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province. He will work with the Canadian National Team, and run his camp – Olynyk Klynyk – in late July and early August.
Olynyk’s role evolved as the Heat realized they were getting an even more savvy, heady and skilled big man than they thought and Hassan Whiteside’s production dipped, requiring more minutes from Olynyk and rookie center Bam Adebayo.
Those minutes paid off. Olynyk had a bonus attached to his four-year, $50 million contract that added an additional $1 million if he played at least 1,700 minutes. He reached that threshold in the season’s final week pushing his 2017-18 salary from $10.6 million to $11.6 million.
The deal turned out to be one of the smartest moves by the Heat last summer.
“He already is a tremendous worker, very skilled, very well coached over his college and pro careers that it was really fun to see his growth and his progress this year,” Spoelstra said. “He became a player that I think on every team we played. … he was high on their scouting report, that you have to handle him to be able to handle the Heat.
“And it was a lot of fun. Working with him, I think he has that kind of upside that he can make another big jump this summer, particularly the way he works. He can come back something different next year.”
Olynyk also is making his mark on the community. Olynyk loves kids and has vowed to do what he can for others, something he started during his four years in Boston, which honored him this past season for his charitable work by presenting him with the city’s prestigious “Heroes Among Us” award.
Olynyk, who has visited schools and hospitals since arriving in South Florida, had his hair cut last week to donate his locks to Wigs For Kids, a nonprofit organization which creates wigs for children who have lost their hair either permanently or temporarily due to a medical condition.
“Inspired by some of the amazing kids I’ve met over the years at the Boston’s Children’s Hospital, Holtz Children’s Hospital, and elsewhere, I am donating my hair to @wigs.for.kids,” Olynyk wrote on his Instagram page.
Olynyk’s role for 2018-19 will not be defined until Whiteside’s future is known. If the Heat trade their underachieving $98 million center, that would open up a spot in the starting lineup that likely would go to Olynyk or Adebayo. If Whiteside returns, he probably will start and Olynyk’s role could expand to play more with a low-post dominant player like Whiteside.
But Olynyk is open for anything. Last summer, he accepted the Heat’s offer basically on blind trust and faith. That was rewarded by the franchise bringing out the best in his game.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Olynyk said. “You’re going into a new situation. They called me and I was signed the next day. I never came down here, I never had a face to face meeting. It was nothing like that. I kind of just took a leap of a faith and jumped in here. They were arms wide open in welcoming me and trying to help me elevate my game and take my game to the next level. It was great. It was great to be welcomed like that and to be utilized in such a different manner than I have been before.”