Seven games into the season, the Charlotte 49ers sit comfortably near the top of the Conference-USA holding a 5-2 record. Many factors have contributed to Charlotte’s early season success thus-far but one aspect in particular is junior Kenya Olley. The 6-foot-3-inch forward is a defensive presence to say the least as she continues to prove why she’s one of the best rim protectors in the country.
The junior forward grew up and graduated from Dorman High School in Spartanburg, S.C. Basketball and blocking shots in particular came natural to Olley. Throughout her high school varsity basketball career, she averaged more than three blocks per game despite only playing in 10 games her senior year due to injury.
“My dad taught me how to block them [shots] when I was younger. He told me he wanted me to become a shot blocker so he showed me how to block shots,” Olley said.
After Olley’s freshman season in which she played in 16 games, she earned a consistent amount of playing time in her sophomore year, last season. Olley appeared in all 32 games and tallied 4o blocks, a personal career-best. It was obvious that Olley possessed potential but in order to make the most of her unteachable skill-set, she would have to work.
“Kenya made the decision this summer to change her work ethic,” 49ers head coach Cara Consuegra said. “Her first two years being an underclassman still trying to figure it out, she would come in to get through practice. This summer she made a decision to practice to get better. And her game grew tremendously because of it and she’s continued to have that mentality here throughout the season.”
The 49ers extended their win streak to three games defeating NC Central, Dec. 2. As presumed, Olley made her presence known impacting the game in a various amount of ways. The least startling of which was her defensive prowess. Charlotte outscored the Lady Eagles by 29 points when she was on the court, proof of her defensive performance. Olley continues to exemplify consistency defending on the low post. NC Central relished little to no joy in the paint while Olley was on the floor.
Olley began to irritate the Lady Eagles’ offense from the get-go but tallied her first blocked shot just over four minutes into the second quarter. Rodneysha Martin started a fast break for the Lady Eagles, drove the lane eyeing an open layup but Olley met her at the rim. The 49er forward denied Martin restarting the Charlotte offense as Mintrell McKoy hauled in the rebound.
Much of the second half was the same story as Olley rejected NC Central on three occasions in the third quarter alone. She was a stalwart in the paint and is the perfect insurance policy. Her defensive presence is assuring to teammates. Perimeter defenders can increase their on-ball pressure knowing that Olley is providing protection inside the arc. Any opposing undersized guard that penetrates Charlotte’s defense is challenged by Olley on each scoring attempt. Against NC Central, three of Olley’s blocks were on the Lady Eagle’s guards.
In addition to keeping the opponent from scoring, each battle Olley wins in the paint is a confidence-deflator for the opposition. This affects the game in more ways than one especially if opposing players become hesitant to drive the lane when Olley in on the court.
“What we teach in our defense is that when we get beat baseline in particular we want to level off the drive but if we cant, Kenya always knows she’s allowed to rotate over and block the shot,” Consuegra said. “I think the kids know that and that gives them a lot more confidence when defending good perimeter players.”
Olley’s continued defensive success on the low block has her ranked nationally as she currently sits fifth in the NCAA averaging 3.43 blocks per game. In the C-USA, Olley ranks first by a wide margin. She’s tallied 24 blocks on the season, twice as much as the next player. As impressive as these statistics are, Olley’s uncanny ability to stay out of foul trouble while contesting so many shots is remarkable. Thus-far, Olley averages just 2.5 fouls per game which contributes to her stellar 1.33 blocks per foul average, a number on par with NBA veterans Pau Gasol and Anthony Davis.
“I go up straight and usually block shots with one hand,” Olley said. “I just let them drive by and I can read by their body to see if they’re about to go up for the shot.”
As if proving to be a remarkable defensive anchor isn’t enough, Olley is improving her offensive production game-by-game. Against NC Central, Olley logged 12 points while shooting 60 percent from the field. This point tally marked the second best scoring output she’s enjoyed in her 49er career. At the same time, her 12 points against the Lady Eagles, was her second double-digit scoring game and first game in which she led Charlotte in scoring.
“I think for her, she has a great touch,” Consuegra said. “She’s always had a great touch around the rim and from 15 feet. The biggest thing we work on with her is getting her to get squared all the way on her shot especially when she’s in the paint. Once she commits to getting all the way squared, using a double pivot, she has the capability of becoming a really good scorer.”
Olley’s offensive game is versatile. While she enjoys playing under the basket scoring with her left hand, the Spartanburg, S.C. native has shown off her shooting range on numerous occasions. The junior forward hasn’t hesitated to pull up from 15 feet away from the basket. Nearly a third of the way through the season, that mid-range jumper has served Olley well as she’s currently shooting 53 percent from the floor.
“She [Consuegra] wants me to score more, I know I don’t really score a lot,” Olley said. “I look to block shots. I rather be on defense than offense but I have to learn to play offense too. She told me she wants me to score more, I have to step up to it.”
As Olley’s offensive production continues to improve game-by-game, Charlotte’s offense as a whole will raise. As a team, Charlotte currently averages 77 points per game on average, second best in the C-USA. Olley is a tough player to guard simply based on height but add a smooth mid-range jump shot and fluid post moves to the package and she quickly becomes a nightmare for opposing coaches.