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College Basketball

Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer eager to restart his career at Gonzaga

Photo: Frederick Breedon/Getty

Kyle Wiltjer won a championship at Kentucky but didn't contribute much. He's looking for a bigger role at Gonzaga.

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Kyle Wiltjer strolls into a juice shop, ducking his lanky, almost-6-foot-11 frame through the door and, like any athlete dedicated to putting on weight, promptly orders a protein shake.

Compared to other summers in the life of an NBA hopeful, Wiltjer's has been plenty laid back. He works out, plays one-on-one against his little brother, hangs out with his family and girlfriend ... and waits. It has been 461 days since Wiltjer has played in a college basketball game. Once a prized recruit out of the Portland area, he played two years at Kentucky before transferring to Gonzaga and sitting out the 2013-14 campaign. Now, with more than four months to go before the start of the season, Wiltjer tries to be patient as his turn in a Gonzaga uniform approaches. But it’s clear that, to some degree, boredom has set in.

“I’m so anxious to play in a real game,” Wiltjer says. “Sitting on the bench was weird, especially because I was healthy. I knew if I went on the floor, I could have helped.”

Wiltjer had a dominant career at Jesuit High School in Beaverton and was ranked the 18th-best college prospect by ESPN and No. 22 by both Scout and Rivals. He strongly considered the Bulldogs but chose Kentucky over Cal, Wake ForestKansasGeorgia Tech and Texas. “I don’t regret anything. I wanted to be part of what those guys were going to do,” Wiltjer says, referring to the Wildcats’ freshman class that year that featured him, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Wiltjer averaged just five points per game his freshman season, but that year ended in ideal fashion, with the Wildcats raising the NCAA championship banner. But after the 2012-13 season, when Wiltjer averaged 10.2 points per game and was named the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year, the wiry sophomore started to think there might be a bigger role for him somewhere else.

Wiltjer decided to transfer last June after holding his own with Team Canada -- his father is Canadian -- in international competition, but even if he hadn't left Kentucky, he and his family had decided that taking a year off to revamp his body would be necessary. He considered staying in Lexington, but ultimately decided that Gonzaga fit him better. 

“I actually grew up a Duck fan, and I thought about (transferring to) Oregon but with Gonzaga, they needed a 4-man and their system really worked for me,” Wiltjer says. “I had followed them growing up, and I really enjoyed playing with [Gonzaga guard] Kevin Pangos in the Canadian system.”

Another selling point: Gonzaga has a habit of reshaping players’ bodies, highlighted by Kelly Olynyk, who became a first-team All-America in 2013 after redshirting the previous season. “Seeing that transformation really motivated me,” Wiltjer says. 

It helped that through the transition, Kentucky coach John Calipari was supportive, telling Wiltjer that he’d love for him to stay but understood there might be a better opportunity for him elsewhere. Wiltjer remains in touch with Calipari, saying that they have a good relationship and that he rooted for the Wildcats during their run to the 2014 national title game, though it felt weird cheering hard for two different teams.

Wiltjer worked out a plan with Travis Knight, the Zags’ strength and conditioning coach, that focused on adding muscle and improving lateral quickness. Though it’s easy to draw comparisons between Wiltjer and the 7-foot Olynyk -- both are tall and thin and both have similar roles in Gonzaga’s system as stretch fours who can play inside and out -- Knight believed they were completely different players who needed different workouts. Wiltjer appreciated being treated like an individual, instead of being plugged into a program created for someone else. 

“With Kelly, it was a lot about body balance,” said Knight, who played baseball at GU from 1996-99. “With Kyle, running down the floor looked painful. The way he moved, he looked like a 40-year-old.” 

Wilter's awkward running style and the frequency with which he was pushed around inside were indicative of his slight frame, and it still isn’t easy for him to gain weight. He checks in at 235 now, compared to 215 when he was coming out of high school, and his body fat has dropped three percent, but it will likely seesaw throughout the season. Still, a combination of yoga and strength training, coupled with healthier eating -- Wiltjer laughs that he now voluntarily orders salad -- has dramatically changed his body composition.

“His body isn’t going to show a lot of muscle gain,” Knight says. “But from behind the curtain, we know how different it is.”

And just through a year of practice, Wiltjer can feel a difference in how he moves and challenges bigger players on the floor. His vertical leap is higher, and his lateral quickness has improved enough so that he can now more effectively cover opponents on the perimeter instead of chasing them around. Before he started his college career, Wiltjer was a celebrated for being a big forward who could shoot; now he’s a complete package.

“With his role in our system, he has to have the versatility to create space,” Knight says. “This program is about being able to trust every cut, every move, every vertical jump. He needs to be free with his body to succeed. And he is now -- watching him move now is completely different.”

With news that Wiltjer might still grow an inch or two -- his father is 7-feet, and grew late into his college career Oregon State -- Knight lets out a dramatic sigh. “Hopefully we won’t have to go through the awkward stage again,” he jokes.

Knight also hopes he’ll get to see the results of his work for more than one year. The NBA could beckon Wiltjer after this season, though. With an eye on the future, he has spent years under the tutelage of Portland-based trainer Jason Fawcett, who has helped a handful of pros reshape their bodies and hone their skills, including NBA All-Star and Oregon native Kevin Love. Fawcett puts Wiltjer through shooting, dribbling and conditioning drills multiple times per week. Occasionally Wiltjer pairs up with other former area standouts like Terrence Jones (who played at Kentucky and is now with the Houston Rockets), Garrett Sim (Oregon), Seth Tarver (Oregon State) and Brad Tinsley (Vanderbilt) for two-on-two games. At Gonzaga, he worked daily with former Bulldogs star Adam Morrison, who told Wiltjer to attack the hoop relentlessly, and never tire of scoring.

The Bulldogs, who went 29-7 and lost to Arizona in the NCAA tournament's Round of 32, could use Wiltjer's scoring and perimeter shooting -- he made 39 percent of his three-point attempts at UK -- to be a matchup nightmare for opponents as they seek to reach their 17th consecutive Big Dance and perhaps even the program's first Final Four.

Wiltjer returned to the GU campus last week to enroll in summer school and start working at the Bulldogs’ high school camps. There he’ll be able to show off that much-improved defense and vertical. Last weekend, he attended Hoopfest, the annual 3-on-3 tournament in Spokane that drew almost 7,000 teams and featured 13-year-old Sam Wiltjer, a 5-8 guard with a “sweet stroke,” according to his older brother. In their last friendly game of one-on-one, Sam used that sweet stroke to beat Kyle 18-17.

“I gave him an open three and he nailed it,” Kyle admits, shaking his head.

“Uh, you gave me TWO open threes,” Sam corrects him.

On second thought, maybe that defense still needs a little work.

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