At times, it felt like punishment, like Kyle Wiltjer had sentenced himself to a year of hard labor. His redshirt season at Gonzaga after transferring from Kentucky seemed like all pain and no pleasure. There were strength and conditioning workouts in the morning that included drills like having a trainer fire 20-pound medicine balls at his chest while the 6’10” Wiltjer kept his hands at his sides, absorbing the blows and then catching the ball after it bounced off his body, in order to toughen him up for battles under the basket. Then there was practice with his teammates, often followed by another hour or more of work in the weight room.
“I’d see him at the end of the day and he would be wiped out, exhausted,” says Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos. “He worked as hard, if not harder, than the rest of us last year without getting the payoff of playing in the games. But I think he’d tell you that it’s all been worth it.”
[daily_cut.college basketball]The payoff for Wiltjer, a junior forward, has been that he has become a far more athletic, multi-dimensional player than he was at Kentucky, where he was little more than a stationary long-range shooter. His transformation has helped the Zags, 32-2 and likely headed for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, become one of the most efficient offensive teams in the nation. Wiltjer, who averaged 7.3 points in two seasons at Kentucky, is Gonzaga’s leading scorer at 16.7 per game, and he is a threat everywhere from the post to the perimeter, a perfect fit in the Gonzaga attack. “I feel like a different player,” he says. “My balance, my speed, everything is better. It’s like I’ve been rebuilt.”
It was all part of his plan when he left Kentucky, where was a bit player on the Wildcats’ national championship team as a freshman, after the 2012-13 season. Although he had been the Sixth Man of the Year in the SEC as a sophomore, supplying the Wildcats with three-point shooting, he could envision a diminished role with another set of Kentucky’s NBA-players-in-waiting, including Julius Randle, set to arrive as freshmen. But it wasn’t just that. Wiltjer wasn’t satisfied with himself as a player. If he wanted a pro future himself, he knew he needed a year to work on himself and his game.
He chose to do that back in the Pacific Northwest at Gonzaga. As a McDonald’s All-American coming out of Jesuit High in Portland, he had spurned the Zags for Kentucky—“I recruited him for three years, and (John) Calipari made one phone call,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few jokes—but it was time to come back closer to home. The Zags are glad he did. Wiltjer has been their best three-point shooter (46.6%) and he has developed an effective mid-range game. “He’s always been a very good low-post player as well,” Few says. “He just wasn’t called on to show it. But this year we’re seeing all the parts of his game.”
Calipari isn’t surprised at Wiltjer’s success at Gonzaga, nor was he offended by his decision to leave. “Coach Cal was great about it,” Wiltjer says. “When I told him I was thinking about transferring, he said, ‘I’m not going to tell you I’m happy about this, but I want what’s best for you.’” Calipari still texts Wiltjer on occasion to congratulate him after a good game. “One of the great things about this is that I have nothing but positive memories of Kentucky,” Wiltjer said.
Now he more closely fits the profile of an NBA stretch four, but thoughts of the pros after this season or next are on hold until after the Zags take care of their tournament business. If Wiltjer is going to win a second national title, he might very well have to go through the team with whom he won the first one. “I haven’t thought much about eventually playing Kentucky,” he said last month. “Something like that is too far in the future to focus on.”
But sometimes focusing on the future is the smartest thing a player can do. It helped Wiltjer endure that year of redshirt labor, and the rewards just keep getting bigger.