Kelly Olynyk is in Toronto because he’s happy, not because he’s Canadian

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TORONTO — Heading into trade deadline week, Kelly Olynyk thought he was going to be dealt to a championship contender, or at least a playoff team. It was a logical assumption: Olynyk is a 32-year-old big man in his 11th season with excellent passing skills and quality shooting. He is also on a contract that expires after this season.

Instead, as he met with the media that covers his new team Friday, the day after the trade deadline, he is on a team with a worse record than the middling Utah Jazz, whom he left. The Toronto Raptors are 19-33 after their 107-104 win over the Houston Rockets. Making a run at the Play-In Tournament seems unlikely, let alone the playoffs; forget a title.

Olynyk came in with a huge grin, a gleeful “Whassup? Whassup?” for the attendees. Olynyk wasn’t pining over a lost chance at a ring.

“Very, very surreal,” said Olynyk, who split his pre-college years between Toronto and Kamloops, B.C. “It’s a full circle moment. It’s really cool to look back at your life and everything that you’ve done up till now and how monumental the Raptors have been in my life. My mom was a scorekeeper here. My dad was an associate coach here for a year. Just being in the driveway pretending you’re a Raptor growing up. I used to fall asleep at night with a little alarm clock radio listening to The Fan 590 and (former play-by-play man) Chuck Swirsky. So to be putting on this jersey and these shirts and hats and stuff — it’s something that you can’t even put into words.”

The weirdness of a rebuilding team trading for a player at this stage of his career brought up the obvious question: Were the Raptors doing this because Olynyk is Canadian? More accurately, would the Raptors have done this for a non-Canadian version of Olynyk?

That cannot be answered, because part of the calculus here is that Olynyk is actively happy to be in this situation, and that might not be true if he were moved to the Western Conference version of the Raptors.

“I’d love to be here for the rest of my career,” Olynyk said.

It seems like the Raptors and Olynyk won’t have trouble working out a new contract. However, there is some value in bringing in players who are actively happy to be in Toronto. In Ochai Agbaji, who came over with Olynyk, and Immanuel Quickley, who became a Raptor in the OG Anunoby trade, the team has two players with chances to fill bigger roles than they have had in their careers. In Olynyk and RJ Barrett, they have two Torontonians.

You do not want players who are happy to lose, but you do want players who are going to be able to keep finding joy in their lives as the Raptors inevitably lose a bunch of games and engage in an effort to reshape the team. Among other reasons, you want that because you want Scottie Barnes in a good environment as he steps to the forefront of the organization. The vibes, you might have heard, haven’t been great with the Raptors for the last year-plus. There are numerous culprits, but the Raptors cannot afford that at this stage of building.

Besides, it is not as if Olynyk does not fit with how the Raptors are trying to play. An instinctive passer with plus shooting is great for the movement-centric offence new coach Darko Rajaković has preached. Olynyk will also qualify as the first pick-and-pop option, at least up front, Barnes has ever played with, which should open up new angles for the All-Star.

“I think it’s always good to have Canadians,” Olynyk said. “But I don’t think you’re actively seeking Canadians. I think you’re actively seeking talent. It just happens to be that the talent is Canadian now.”


• Olynyk and Agbaji were available to play Friday but were given the night off after a hectic travel day. The Raptors are also on a back-to-back, so it seems likely they will both make their Raptors debuts Saturday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As for Agbaji, I thought Olynyk had a really neat observation about him.

“He’s one of the most physically talented players I’ve ever seen in terms of his physical attributes,” Olynyk said. “I said it before, but I’ve never seen somebody backpedaling to jump higher. He jumps higher backpedaling than a lot of guys do going forward.”

Does that mean we’re in for transition blocks?

• Fred VanVleet didn’t play in his return to Toronto because of an adductor injury, but he still got the welcome back. A job well done by the game operations staff as well as the fans.

• With Dennis Schröder’s departure Thursday, Rajaković officially declared Barnes the backup point guard, with the idea that he splits ballhandling duties with Quickley in the starting lineup. The presence of Olynyk and Bruce Brown, high-level passers, should help Barnes in those bench-heavy lineups.

Barnes has the passing ability to handle the duty, but how much he a) trusts his dribble; and b) looks to score will be big. The Raptors had a rough start to the second quarter, and there was a lot of side-to-side dribbling from Barnes. He has to keep the aggression high, as he did to start the fourth quarter with a similar group to the one that struggled in the second. Barnes had eight assists, falling two shy of a triple-double. Rajaković said the Rockets started to switch more when the Raptors used the lineups, and Barnes has to step into shots in those situations.

• Of all those responsible for the Raptors’ poor defence Wednesday in Charlotte, Barrett was maybe the most responsible. He looked especially invigorated on that end Friday, putting lots of pressure on the ball. He also had a sweet wraparound pass to Jakob Poeltl for a dunk.

• Quickley looked as dangerous as a scorer as he has for the Raptors so far this year. The floater and the shot were on display.

• Gradey Dick hit another two 3-pointers. Dick pump-faking, side-stepping, allowing the shot contest to fly by him before beating the shot clock was especially sharp stuff.

• Toronto has to be the only city, aside from Memphis, in which Dillon Brooks is cheered on the road. It looked like he might lead a comeback in the fourth quarter, which he probably would have enjoyed. Rajaković said he didn’t want his team to foul when Houston was inbounding the ball, down three, with 2.2 seconds left because it was likely the player who caught the ball was going to shoot right away, creating the possibility of a three-shot foul.

(Photo: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

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