Confidence has never been a problem for Olek Czyz.
This is the same young man, after all, who became a cult hero around Reno High as a 14-year-old Polish-speaking freshman transfer student with did-you-see-that? windmill dunks in, of all places, gym class. A year later he was seen taking off his shirt and jumping over a teammate on his way to winning a slam dunk contest as member of the Huskies basketball team.
Fast forward four more years to the beginning of his sophomore year at Duke University. He is thrilling the basketball-savvy crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium during the Blue Devils’ “Countdown to Craziness” slam dunk contest. He starts out one dunk as if he is revving up the engine of a motorcycle and then finishes it with a between-the-legs slam.
Yes, confidence and shyness has never been a problem for the Poland native who seemingly had more types of dunks and slam dunk costumes than English words and phrases in his repertoire as a Reno High student. Czyz was the most self-assured, secure-in-his-own-skin, fearless young man you’d ever want to meet at Reno High.
And that didn’t change when he transferred to the Nevada Wolf Pack from Duke last December.
“Oh, he’s the same guy,” former Wolf Pack standout Luke Babbitt said with a smile a year ago when asked about his former AAU teammate and Northern 4A rival. “Every time we miss a shot in practice, he’s right there putting his two cents in, telling us what we’re doing wrong.”
So, the last thing you’d ever expect Czyz to say is that his confidence needed a boost. But that’s exactly what he said earlier this month as the Wolf Pack met the media for the first time this season.
“I had to get my confidence back,” he said. “That was the main thing I had to do this off-season.”
Rest assured, Pack fans, Czyz’s confidence is back where it needs to be. He restored his confidence this past summer while playing almost two dozen games for Poland’s Under-20 team.
“It was real good for me,” said Czyz, who has not played in a college basketball game since leaving Duke last December. “I just wanted to go there, be real consistent on the floor and get my confidence back. I’m ready to go now.”
Two seasons of sitting on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s bench nearly wiped out Czyz’s seemingly never-ending supply of confidence. But that’s what happens when you play just 112 minutes combined spread out over 19 garbage-time games in two seasons.
“I need to play,” he said. “I need to play in games. You can’t get better just playing in practice.”
Czyz, who still has a red-shirt year to use as an option, must sit out the Pack’s first dozen or so games this year because of the NCAA’s transfer rule before becoming eligible in December. And, make no mistake, he knows nothing (like a starting job and meaningful minutes) is guaranteed.
“Everybody’s role on this team is up in the air,” he said. “There is open competition.”
That alone makes Czyz smile. At Duke there was no real open competition – or a lot of reasons to smile.
“It was tough to get on the floor there,” Czyz said.
A big chunk Czyz’s minutes at Duke took place in the opening three games of the 2009-10 season against UNC-Greensboro, Coastal Carolina and Radford.
Czyz, who started the first two games because Nolan Smith was serving a two-game suspension, played well against Greensboro with six points, six rebounds and two steals in 24 minutes in his first Duke career start. He started again against Coastal Carolina, scoring two points with five rebounds in 13 minutes. He followed that with two points in 10 minutes off the bench against Radford.
After those three games, though, it was back to sitting next to Kyle Singler’s water bottle on the bench. He played less than a minute combined over the next four games against Arizona State, Connecticut, Wisconsin and St. John’s. But it was a blowout victory over Gardner Webb when it became obvious to Czyz that his Duke career might never get off the bench. He played just two minutes in the 113-68 victory.
It would be his last game as a member of the Blue Devils. Less than a week later he was seen snooping around the campuses of Nevada and Arizona State looking to transfer.
“He had so much to learn,” Krzyzewski told dukechronicle.com last season. “(It was) not just basketball, but language, academics. He was making a big step forward in a lot of areas.”
So Czyz, who underwent minor knee surgery after his freshman year, made a big step backward — to northern Nevada.
“I can’t wait to play in front of the crowd here,” Czyz said. “I love playing on this court, in front of these fans. I have a lot of friends here.”
Czyz, who helped Reno High win state titles at Lawlor Events Center as a sixth man in 2006 and as a starter in 2008, gives Wolf Pack coach David Carter a lot of options. At 6-7, Czyz is big and strong enough to play inside. But his off-the-charts athletic talents and ability to leap through the roof at Lawlor can also be used all over the court.
“He’s very unique,” Carter said. “He can play the three (small forward), four (power forward) or five (center). He can really be a wild card for us.”
While at Reno High, Czyz had an inconsistent jump shot and was most effective in the paint. He tried to dunk everything and usually succeeded. If he learned anything at Duke, it was an outside game.
“In high school I was just a post player,” he said. “(At Duke) I had to go out on the perimeter and play a different game.”
The last thing Carter wants is for Czyz to try to become another Babbitt. The 6-foot-9 Babbitt, who is now with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, turned out to be one of the top players in Wolf Pack history the last two seasons.
It would only be natural for Czyz to think he has to do the same thing.
“They are totally different players,” Carter said. “I had a conversation with Olek in August on the same subject. I just told him, ‘Just be who you are. Don’t try to be someone else.’ Luke didn’t come in here and try to be Nick Fazekas or JaVale McGee. He just came here and became Luke Babbitt. I just told him, ‘Just stay within yourself and do what you do best.’”
And that, Carter said, will be enough for this deep and talented Wolf Pack team.
“He’s kind of a nice luxury to have,” Carter said, “a guy who can play big and play small.”
Czyz just wants to play.
“I just want to do what my coaches tell me to do,” Czyz said. “This is going to be a different team this year, We have a lot of guys who can play. Everybody is competing for playing time.”
Northern Nevada can expect a new, improved and more mature and well-rounded Olek Czyz this season. Yes, the kid who took off his shirt, revved up an imaginary motorcycle and dunked between his legs is still there. Don’t worry, that entertaining side of Czyz is bound to come out this season at Lawlor Events Center.
“I love to dunk” is Czyz’s answer on the Wolf Pack’s Web site when asked what is the most interesting thing he wants Pack fans to know about him.
But there’s a lot more to Aleksander Czyz these days.
“When I was in high school I had different goals,” Czyz said, explaining his decision to accept Duke’s scholarship offer in December 2007. “I wanted to play on a big-time program and I thought Duke was the way to do it. But after a while, I wanted different things. I love playing this game and I just want to play and help my team win.”