(Eds: Adds details, quotes. With AP Photos.)
By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Gonzaga forward Kelly Olynyk figured he wouldn't get much playing time behind Robert Sacre and Elias Harris last season, so he redshirted.
The junior has emerged as the leading scorer for No. 8 Gonzaga (16-1, 3-0 West Coast Conference) this season.
"He grew up and his game grew up," coach Mark Few said of Olynyk's redshirt season. "In the past he was a little out of control and made a lot of turnovers. Now, he is in control and his game is more mature."
Olynyk, a 7-footer, is averaging 18 points and 6 rebounds per game, and he's shooting 66 percent from the field. He dropped a career-high 33 points on Santa Clara on Jan. 5 and followed that up with 31 against archrival Saint Mary's last Thursday.
He was named the West Coast Conference player of the month for December.
Olynyk is a big reason Gonzaga is off to the best start in its history as a Division I program, as the Zags prepare this week to play at Portland on Thursday and at No. 13 Butler on Saturday.
All the attention is a big change for a player who before the season might have been considered an afterthought on Gonzaga's deep front line.
"He's improved more than anybody in college basketball," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said after Olynyk made 11 of 19 shots against his team. "We were prepared for him and he still did it to us."
Olynyk is from Kamloops, British Columbia, and was heavily recruited out of high school by the likes of Syracuse, Providence and North Carolina State. He chose Gonzaga in part so he could play closer to home. Playing time was hard to come by his first two seasons, and Olynyk averaged only 5 points and 4 rebounds as a little-used sophomore.
Then he went to coaches with the idea of redshirting because he didn't figure to displace Sacre, now with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Harris, one of the team's best players. A season of sitting on the bench opened Olynyk's eyes to the intricacies of the game, Few said.
"He got to see things from a coaching point of view that could be beneficial to all players," Few said.
Olynyk credited lots of playing time in practice with the scout team for his improvement.
"You can take some bad shots and make mistakes because it really doesn't matter," Olynyk said. "You're meant to make mistakes."
This season, Olynyk figured to split time with Harris, Sam Dower, and Przemek Karnowski on the front line. But as the season has worn on, it is Olynyk and Harris who have taken the lion's share of the minutes.
"The one downside to great depth is that," Few said.
Asked if he had ever seen a player improve so much during a redshirt year, Few offered a different opinion.
`That's implying he wasn't very good when he got here," Few said. "He's adjusted his game is what he's done. He quit settling for 3's and became a very good player."
"He is one guy that is not afraid to make a play," Few said. "He is multi-talented in regards that he can drive it comfortably. He can pass it, and you guys know that he can shoot it."
The formerly clean-cut Olynyk also grew out his hair, so that he now needs headbands to keep it out of his face. That prompts plenty of opposing fans to chant "get a haircut."
"If that's what they want to focus on, it's OK with me," Olynyk said.
He's been playing well all season, but the past couple of weeks have been a real coming-out party. Olynyk scored 21 points each in wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State, 16 points in the conference opener versus Pepperdine and then the 33 against Santa Clara and 31 against Saint Mary's. The last Gonzaga player to have consecutive 30-point games was Adam Morrison in 2006.
"I'm happy with the way I'm playing now," Olynyk said. "My teammates are getting me the ball in great position."
Guard Kevin Pangos said Olynyk has emerged as the vocal leader of the Zags.
"He's being a true veteran," Pangos said.