Zigging For the Zags

March 02, 2015

AFTER A practice in mid-February, Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga's lanky junior power forward and undisputed trick-shot king, picked up a basketball that was lying out-of-bounds, a few feet beyond the baseline. Wiltjer has a knack for making ridiculous, one-in-a-million shots, his favorite being a behind-the-back half-court fling that went viral on YouTube in October. At least that was his favorite until he grabbed the ball near the baseline and tossed it, with the ease of a dad playing catch with his Little Leaguer, toward the opposite basket, 90 feet away. Swish. The few teammates who were around to see it went berserk. "Usually it takes me a bunch of tries before I make shots like that," says the 6'10" Wiltjer, who posted video of the shot on his Twitter account. "But that one was on the first try. Crazy."

Wiltjer's college career has been a trick shot of sorts. Picture a long heave across the country from his home in Beaverton, Ore., that banks off Kentucky's Rupp Arena, where he played for two seasons and helped the Wildcats win a national championship in 2012, and ricochets back to Spokane, where it hits nothing but net. After a redshirt season spent mostly building strength, Wiltjer has blossomed into his team's leading scorer (17.4 points per game through Sunday) and one of the most versatile offensive threats in the country. Once little more than a lead-footed long-range shooter, he has become equally dangerous from perimeter to post for the Zags, who are 28--1 and ranked third in the nation. Wiltjer scored 45 points—the third most in school history—in an 86--74 win over Pacific last Thursday; two days later he chipped in 16 points and 12 rebounds in a 70--60 defeat of Saint Mary's to clinch Gonzaga's third straight West Coast Conference title.

Though the Zags will be back in the NCAA tournament for the 17th consecutive March—with five Sweet 16 appearances under coach Mark Few—they have never reached the Final Four, a fact they are reminded of with increasing frequency at this time of year. "It's a very valid point," says Few, now in this 16th season. "But it's like saying Cindy Crawford has a mole. Well, yes, she does, but is that really the part you want to focus on? We've won a lot of games, we've graduated a lot of players, we've done it with guys who don't get into trouble. Sure, we want to go farther, but we sleep pretty well at night around here."

This year's version of Gonzaga is well-equipped to reach Indianapolis, with a deep squad that includes a pair of senior marksmen in the backcourt, Kevin Pangos (46.0% on threes) and Gary Bell Jr. (38.7%); 7'1", 288-pound man-mountain center Przemek Karnowski (10.4 points); and 6'10" freshman forward Domantas Sabonis (the son of former Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis), who is shooting 67.5% from the field and leading Gonzaga in rebounding (6.9). "They are a complete team," says Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose Wildcats handed the Zags their only loss, 66--63 in overtime, on Dec. 6. "They share the ball so well, and they will test you defensively from every angle."

No one has had a bigger impact on Gonzaga's attack than Wiltjer, a McDonald's All-American at Jesuit High in Beaverton who originally chose to play for Kentucky's John Calipari over other suitors from Gonzaga, Kansas and Wake Forest. "I recruited him for three years, and Calipari made one call," Few jokes. The Wildcats' 2011--12 freshman class included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Wiltjer, who averaged 5.0 points during their national championship season. As a sophomore Wiltjer was the Cats' designated shooter off the bench; his 10.2 points per game and 36.7% accuracy from deep earned him the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year award, yet he began to consider transferring.

Wiltjer wasn't unhappy in Lexington, but he also wasn't satisfied with his development as a player. Even if he had stayed there, he might have requested a redshirt year to develop his game and his 215-pound frame. With another shipment of one-and-done freshmen, including Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson, about to arrive on Calipari's perpetual conveyor belt of future pros, Wiltjer also faced the prospect of his role being diminished. "I felt that I needed to improve my strength and explosiveness," he says. "And I knew about Kelly Olynyk doing exactly that at Gonzaga." By redshirting, Olynyk had transformed himself from a little-known backup center to an All-America and first-round NBA draft pick in 2013.

It also helped that Wiltjer became close friends with Pangos, who is from Holland Landing, Ont., when they played together on the Canadian national team during the summer of 2013. (Wiltjer's 6'11" father, Greg, who played one season for Oregon State, is Canadian.) "When he told me he was thinking of transferring, I just told him how much I loved it at Gonzaga and how great it would be if we were teammates," Pangos says.

Calipari and Few, who are good friends, couldn't do anything except wait for Wiltjer to make up his mind, which was particularly maddening when he went to China with the Canadian team, and it was nearly impossible to reach him. "While he was there, Cal and I were at a Nike event in Washington, D.C.," Few says. "Cal is saying to me, 'Have you heard anything from him?' and I'm saying, 'No, have you?'" While the two coaches were sitting next to each other, Calipari received a text from Wiltjer telling him that he had decided to transfer to Gonzaga. Calipari turned to Few, held up his phone and said, "Congratulations."

WILTJER ARRIVED at Gonzaga as a skinny player content to station himself around the three-point arc. "Kyle was all finesse," says strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight. "He wanted to avoid contact because he didn't have the body for it. He came in with knee pain and tight hips that he was compensating for without even realizing it. Watching him run was almost painful. You would have thought he was a 40-year-old man."

So Knight began to rebuild Wiltjer from the ground up. They began with yoga and other stretching exercises to improve his flexibility and balance. Wiltjer did underwater squats and ran in sand to strengthen his legs and to make him a more explosive jumper. Knight fired 20-pound medicine balls at Wiltjer, who would have to let each ball hit him in the chest or abs, knocking him off balance, and then steady himself quickly enough to grab the ball before it fell to the ground. Knight put on a 120-pound vest to bring his weight to 300, and he forced Wiltjer to box him out. The coach, who is 5'8", even brought out a mat and wrestled with Wiltjer to improve his ability to get low and gain leverage when battling for position around the basket. "In the beginning it was working on all my weaknesses, which isn't the most fun," Wiltjer says. "But after a while I could feel the difference in my body in practice. I felt stronger and more balanced."

Despite bulking up to 240 pounds, Wiltjer still isn't the chiseled product that the 7-foot, 238-pound Olynyk became. But he's less concerned with the size of his biceps than the efficiency of his game. In scrimmages toward the end of his redshirt year, Wiltjer began getting the ball in the low post and converting shots even through contact. He pulled down rebounds that at one time he wouldn't even have pursued. "He grabbed one with one hand in traffic really aggressively, bringing it into his other hand with a real loud slap," Pangos says. "I was like, O.K., well, that's new." All the off-court conditioning clearly changed Wiltjer's mind as much as his body. "I think that ability was always there," Few says, "but he just didn't see himself that way before."

In the process Wiltjer has also changed how he's seen by NBA scouts. He now projects as the kind of stretch four—a power forward with the shooting range to extend defenses—that has become popular in the league. It's not hard to envision him filling that role in the manner of Ryan Anderson, the Pelicans' 6'10" forward whose name is the first one Wiltjer mentions when asked about pros he admires.

Wiltjer is shooting more accurately than ever, hitting 46.9% of his threes, but he's no longer relying so heavily on that shot. In his last season at Kentucky, 54.0% of his attempts were treys. Thanks to his improved midrange and post-up game, this season only 32.7% of his shots have come from beyond the arc. His improvement is evident in every aspect of his game. Against Saint Mary's on Jan. 22, Wiltjer switched out to block a corner jumper by guard Emmett Naar, then raced ahead on the wing for a pass from Karnowski, who had picked up the loose ball. Wiltjer went behind his back to evade a defender going for the steal and glided in for a layup. A year ago he might not have had the quick jumping ability to make the block, or the speed to get out on the break, or the confidence to make the behind-the-back move.

The Zags are hoping for more of the same from Wiltjer as they chase that first Final Four, but one of their strengths is that they don't need huge numbers from any one player. With their variety of scoring options it's not surprising that their offensive efficiency rating of 120.9 ranks behind only Wisconsin's and Notre Dame's. "It's not like we have five lottery picks," Few says. "But our guys play unselfishly, with great effort."

Scoring has rarely been a problem for the Zags, who have been among the top 30 teams in offensive efficiency four times in the last seven years, according to kenpom.com, but they haven't been nearly as effective defensively. In each of the last seven seasons, 23 of the 28 teams that reached the Final Four ranked in the top 30 in defensive efficiency. The only time Gonzaga has cracked the top 30 over that span was last season, when the Zags ranked 15th. This year they are ranked 33rd. Though Few is not deeply into analytics, he does stress the importance of efficiency. In scrimmages he often bases winning and losing on points per possession rather than on the overall score. "He wants us to be aware of those kinds of things, to see the whole game," Wiltjer says. "Anything that can make us better prepared to get where we eventually want to go."

That destination, of course, is the Final Four, and thanks to his experience at Kentucky, Wiltjer already knows the way. Helping the Zags get there after so many near misses and winning a second title for himself would be the ultimate trick shot. With his old friends at Kentucky likely standing in the way, the odds are against it, of course. It would be like making a basket from the opposite baseline on the very first try. And what are the chances of that?

"Kyle was all finesse," says Gonzaga's strength and conditioning coach. "He wanted to avoid contact because he didn't have the body for it. Watching him run was almost painful."

Helping Gonzaga get to the Final Four after so many near misses and winning a second national championship for himself would be the ultimate trick shot.

PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonough Sports IllustratedFULL STRETCH Wiltjer's rapid ascent after a redshirt season has caught the attention of NBA scouts, who see him as a power forward who can spread the floor. PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDCHESHIRE CAT Wiltjer (far right) was one of the many superfreshmen at Kentucky, where he basked in the glow of the 2012 NCAA title (below, far left). PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonough Sports IllustratedA FEW GOOD MAN Since joining forces with Few (below), Wiltjer has remade his body and retooled his game, becoming a force inside as well as outside. PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonough Sports Illustrated[See caption above]