San Francisco — Kelly Olynyk’s season was derailed before it really even got going.
The Pistons’ prized addition in free agency played in just 10 games before suffering a knee injury that has kept him out for the rest of the first half.
Ten games in. Thirty-two games out. And counting.
The Pistons’ struggles this season are mostly due to an inexperienced roster during their rebuild. But Olynyk’s knee injury in November is high on the list of reasons too. He was supposed to be a glue guy, the one who held the second unit together and even closed out some games as the experienced center.
That all came crashing down when Olynyk was diagnosed with an MCL sprain that has kept him out sidelined the past two months. He’s been working his way back, and he said he expects to return during the Pistons’ current four-game western road trip.
The road back has been tough, with grueling hours of rehab on the knee. Within the past couple of weeks, Olynyk has restarted basketball activities.
The Pistons missed Olynyk on the court, but Olynyk missed his teammates just as much, and ramping back up toward his return has helped him get back to a sense of normalcy, during a most abnormal time.
“It’s a long process and you can’t cheat any of the steps. You always want to get back. Spending that much time away from the game, you realize how much you love the game, how much you want to be out there,” Olynyk told The Detroit News. “You just miss it. You miss competing, miss being with the team, all that kind of stuff, especially in today’s world.
“With the COVID stuff, you don’t really have the same ability to be together all the time, so it’s definitely something that you miss.”
The road to recovery wasn’t easy, and beyond missing basketball, there’s the solitude of trying to fill in the hours of the day and the routine of a normal NBA season. Being out of that routine makes the rehab process even harder.
“It’s a grind. Any time you’re coming back, it’s a grind. You kind of go in stages, where you see a lot of change early, and then it feels like you’re plateauing and it’s not changing at all, and then you’ve just got to keep pushing through,” Olynyk said. “Not playing basketball is boring, especially when you can’t move, and you’re on crutches or you’re in a brace or whatever.
“A vast majority of it is there isn’t much to do but sit around and wait. It’s hurry-up-and-wait. That part is tough, but once you get through it, now you’re better off for it.”
The Pistons started 2-8 during Olynyk’s open to the season. He’s returning when they’re in their best stretch of the season, having won as many games in the start of January as in the previous two-plus months.
If nothing else, the Pistons will benefit from having an experienced big man. It’s a domino effect that eventually will put Trey Lyles back into his more natural spot at power forward and give them more flexibility in the frontcourt.
“He does an excellent job of shooting and passing. He gives us some length,” coach Dwane Casey said. “I’m not going to call him Dennis Rodman yet rebounding-wise, but he gives you some size inside that can help us get some rebounds and protect the rim a little bit. He brings a lot to the table, especially on the offensive end.”
Returning to action
After so much time off, one of the main concerns is that it’ll take some time for Olynyk to get back in the flow of the game and being able to go up and down the court. Some of his teammates have developed during his time off, so staying in tune to those changes will be important too.
“Kelly’s a smart player. It’s not going to take him long. He knew all the positions when he was healthy,” Casey said. “In training camp, there were a couple times we needed a wing player and he went out on the wing and played the wing position. He knows all the positions on the court, as far as what’s supposed to be done.
“I think the main thing with him is just going to be game conditioning, and understanding how long it takes to get down the court a few times, but it won’t take him long to get acclimated to the actions, the schemes and all that stuff.”
Just getting back to the routine and playing will help snap things back into place for Olynyk, but while he was out, just watching the Pistons struggle without him wasn’t easy. After another key veteran, Jerami Grant, was lost to injury in December, they were missing two key contributors.
Injuries have impacted the Pistons’ season, but getting back healthy was the priority for Olynyk.
“I think we were trying to figure some stuff out early on and then I ended up getting hurt. Then Jerami went down and then we got hit by COVID a lot,” Olynyk said. “You could see that we are in need of some players and some leadership, especially some bigs. It’s tough for me; you want to be out there and help your team but obviously, I wasn’t in a position to, with my status.
“You’ve got to be there for them any way you can, and just kind of helping him out, whatever that may be.”
Pistons at Kings
►Tip-off: 7 p.m., Wednesday, Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, California
►Outlook: The Kings (18-28) finish their five-game homestand, in which they’ve won two of the last three, including a surprising win over the Lakers. The Kings won the first meeting this season, 129-107, in November.