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The Resurrection of Kyle Wiltjer

Why the Gonzaga forward had to leave Kentucky to realize his All-American potential

It’s been 14 hours and Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer is still grinning. It’s a Friday morning in Spokane, and he’s in line at a bagel shop and he can’t help himself — this is big. Last night, for the first time, Wiltjer made the SportsCenter Top 10. It’s been a lifelong goal, the kind many athletes set but few achieve. Especially weak-hipped, stone-footed, hunch-shouldered stretch 4s. And that, for most of Wiltjer’s career, is exactly how he’s been described. Big, but slow. Skilled, but immobile. A scorer, but a defensive cipher.

And yet there he was. Top 10! He’s been texting people about it. He’s already watched it a handful of times. On the screen he looked neither stone-footed nor hunch-shouldered. He looked capable of lateral movement. Maybe even quick. He looked — and here is something people have rarely ever said about Kyle Wiltjer — athletic.

The play started on the defensive end. Wiltjer had switched onto Emmett Naar, a freshman Saint Mary’s guard, and Naar put up a corner 3. He’d seemed open, but Wiltjer leapt quickly to get a fingertip on the ball, which fell, limply, to Gonzaga big man Domantas Sabonis. Wiltjer called for the ball, and Sabonis fed him an outlet just above the 3-point line. Wiltjer loped down the court in four dribbles, crossing over to hold off a defender, and then, right when that defender went for the steal, Wiltjer brought the ball around his back before laying it in.

Here’s the video, and, OK, fine, it’s not exactly Vince Carter levitating over Frederic Weis in the 2000 Olympics. But for Wiltjer, driving nearly the length of the court, slicing through defenders, and finishing a highlight layup felt significant. It was a moment born from days and nights in the weight room and the gym, doing exercises that rarely made sense, trying to pull off the seemingly impossible task of turning himself into something more than a big stiff with a soft touch. It was a moment that seemed impossible three years ago, when Wiltjer was a fringe contributor on Kentucky’s 2012 national championship squad, playing for one of the greatest college teams of all time. Now, he’s on the other side of the country, perhaps the best player on another team with national championship aspirations. If he’d never made that move, leaving behind college basketball’s flashiest juggernaut for a team that plays some of its biggest games at midnight Eastern on ESPNU, could he have made that play?

“I don’t think so,” Wiltjer says. “No, probably not.”

wiltjer-kyle-beal-bradleySam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

Before we get too deep into Wiltjer’s transformation, detailing how he built himself into one of the best players in the country, let’s make sure one thing is clear: Kyle Wiltjer is very talented on a basketball court, and he always has been. This is not a parable of grit prevailing over natural gifts, of some plucky scrapper outworking the hyped recruits.

Wiltjer was the hyped recruit. He was a McDonald’s All American and a member of the stacked international squad in the 2011 Nike Hoop Summit.1 He led Portland’s Jesuit High School to three state championships, and he played for perhaps the most loaded AAU team on the West Coast, the Oakland Soldiers. As a high school sophomore, he played pickup ball with — and held his own against — fellow Oregon native and then-Timberwolves forward Kevin Love. In summer tournaments and All-American camps, he’d grown close with heralded prospects like Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. In the 2011 recruiting class, he was their peer.

And in his own way, Wiltjer was already athletic. He wasn’t much of a sprinter or a leaper, but he had a certain dexterity, a way of controlling his long arms and fingers with remarkable precision. Says then-Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua, who’s now the head coach at South Florida: “He had this array of moves that just blew you away. Step-throughs, running hooks, even kind of a sky hook. And he had a swagger to his game. He could really, really play.”

In choosing a college, Wiltjer looked for three major factors. First, he wanted to be part of an elite recruiting class, to surround himself with the best players in the country. Second, he wanted to go to a program where he believed he could win a national championship. And third, he wanted to go somewhere that would prepare him for the NBA.

Kentucky offered all of that. The Wildcats were putting together one of the best recruiting classes ever, with Davis (ESPN’s no. 1 overall recruit), Kidd-Gilchrist (no. 4), and Teague (no. 8). Wiltjer (no. 19) would have been the prized recruit at almost any other school. At Kentucky, he was the lowest-ranked incoming freshman.

In Lexington, Wiltjer became the seventh man in a seven-man rotation, a player counted on to provide bench scoring for a team that staked its identity on a stifling, possession-devouring defense. Wiltjer scored on pick-and-pops. He was the trailer on the secondary break, punishing lazy power forwards with transition 3s. He and the Wildcats rolled to a 16-0 SEC regular season and then to the Final Four in New Orleans. He played three minutes in the national title game against Kansas, and later that night he stood with his teammates on their hotel room balcony, overlooking Bourbon Street, throwing beads to screaming fans, watching a joyfully belligerent fight break out when Davis, just a few years away from becoming one of the best players in the NBA, tossed a practice jersey to the crowd. Wiltjer was 19. Life was impossibly grand.

“There’s no way to describe that moment,” he says. “You have these guys who you’re with 24/7. You’ve been talking about this since before you even got to college. And then you do it. You win. And you win with these crazy fans who are everywhere, all over New Orleans, going nuts. Almost basically blocking our way into the hotel. It was just insane.”

And then everyone left. Davis was drafted first overall by New Orleans, Kidd-Gilchrist went second to Charlotte, and Teague was selected 29th by Chicago. Wiltjer was the only member of his recruiting class who stayed. The next season, a fresh group of Kentucky wunderkinds arrived and the Wildcats took on a new identity, with Wiltjer playing an increased role. As a sophomore, his minutes doubled. He became a leader of the second unit, the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year, and Kentucky’s third-leading scorer.

But along with more playing time came more responsibility. No longer could Wiltjer hit a few jumpers, congratulate himself on a job well done, and then head back to the bench. Now, he needed to become an effective defender. “This isn’t last year,” coach John Calipari said he told Wiltjer after a game against Morehead State. “You want to be on the court, you’ve got to guard somebody.” Referring to the game they’d just finished, a too-close-for-comfort 81-70 win, Calipari said, “They went at you every single time.” Wiltjer also struggled on the boards, with a rebounding rate that lagged far behind Kentucky’s other big men, and though the Wildcats relied on his scoring punch, Wiltjer’s shooting percentages dropped.

Wiltjer loved Kentucky — the coaching staff, the NBA-lite facilities, the crazy-in-a-good-way fans — but after his sophomore season ended with a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris, Wiltjer wondered if he needed a change.

He thought back to his original goals. He’d wanted to play with the best players in the country. Done. He’d wanted to win a national title. Done. He also wanted a chance to make the NBA. At Kentucky, that was beginning to seem like a more distant possibility with each passing year. On defense, he’d been abused in the post by stronger big men and burned on the perimeter by quicker guards. He knew he had the skills to be a great player, but it was clear he didn’t have the right body. He was too slow, too weak, too inflexible. “He needed a year,” says Wiltjer’s father, Greg. “At least a year to focus completely on transforming his body.”

Wiltjer will say only positive things about his experience in Lexington, but one fact was inescapable. “Let’s face it,” says Greg. “A lot of the kids who come into that program are already ready to step onto an NBA court, but the NCAA won’t let them.2 They need a place where they can go for one year  maybe two  and play. And if you’re that kind of kid, there is no better place for that than Kentucky. But here was the challenge with Kyle: He’s naturally more of a four-or-five-year college player. So the question became, can he get what he needs at Kentucky?”

Wiltjer thought, for a while, about taking a redshirt year and staying at Kentucky. But the more he considered his options, the more he realized he might need to find another school.

wiltjer-kyle-kentuckyRonald Martinez/Getty Images

In camp with the Canadian national team, Wiltjer talked to Pangos and Kelly Olynyk about Gonzaga. “I knew he’d be perfect for us,” says Pangos. “We’re all about skilled bigs. That’s what we want. So it made sense.” Wiltjer had watched Olynyk go from being a fringe rotation player in his sophomore year to a national player of the year candidate and first-round NBA draft pick as a junior. Olynyk told Wiltjer the key: his decision to redshirt in the middle of his college career.

“I needed to change my body,” says Olynyk, now a second-year player with the Celtics. “I had the skills, the work ethic, the basketball IQ, but I didn’t have the body  a lot like Kyle.” As an underclassman, Olynyk had been skilled and hard-nosed but completely out of control. In search of blocks and rebounds, he seemed mostly to accumulate fouls. Though he had the ability to score in the post, he was just as likely to end a possession with a turnover as with a bucket. So he took a redshirt year. And when he returned one year later, Olynyk had transformed. He was a deadly shooter from almost every spot on the court, he could score on the block or off the dribble, and he knew how to collect himself and make the right pass when teams double-teamed him. On defense, he learned to play within himself, holding his position while maintaining balance, challenging shots without fouling, and finally gathering his fair share of the team’s boards.

Wiltjer wanted the same thing. “Our games are different,” he says, “and the things we needed to improve were different, but it was the same idea. I wanted to go somewhere that had a track record of developing players like me. He was a great example of that.”

There was another factor at play. Kentucky was bringing in yet another stacked recruiting class, which included highly ranked big men Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle, and Marcus Lee. Even after winning SEC Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore, Wiltjer might have seen his minutes decline as a junior. Still, says Antigua, “We really wanted Kyle to stay. We knew he could help us.” After returning from camp with the Canadian national team, Wiltjer told Calipari he was considering a transfer. “In my mind,” Calipari wrote on his website after that conversation, “Kyle is going to be a professional player as soon as his body begins to change. He has a mentality, a skill set, and the length to be a pro, but the maturity of his body has not caught up with the rest of his game yet. He knows that and he’s working on that.” Calipari continued, “Kyle’s choice to explore options at another school disappoints me, but it’s his decision at the end of the day, and I fully support his decision.” In July 2013, Wiltjer made it official: He was heading to Gonzaga.

Soon after arriving in Spokane, Wiltjer made a list of small corrections he wanted to make to his game. When defending the post, he’d always start by sticking his elbow into an opposing big man’s back. Sometimes, this led to stupid fouls. Other times, it gave offensive players enough space to get off the shots they wanted. Now, he wanted to grow strong enough to body up opponents and absorb contact with his chest. On offense, Wiltjer had always struggled when smaller defenders switched onto him. “You feel like, I should be able to take advantage of this mismatch,” he says. “But a lot of times I couldn’t.” It’s not that he lacked the post-up moves to score over shorter players. Says Gonzaga coach Mark Few: “He’s always had a post game. When he decided to come here, John [Calipari] called me and told me, ‘The thing no one knows is that he’s a really great post scorer.’ They just never needed him to do that when he was at Kentucky.” The skills were there, but the basic physical strength needed to hold his ground on the block, to absorb contact, to finish over an athletic defender — all of that was missing.

“You’d watch him move,” says Travis Knight, Gonzaga’s strength coach, “and it really looks like maybe you’re watching a junior high kid who just went through a major growth spurt. Things don’t look right: His body isn’t moving the way it’s supposed to move. Something is just not clicking.”

At Kentucky, Calipari has built a program designed to attract elite college prospects and then turn them into elite NBA prospects as quickly as he can. He helps these players refine muscles that were already chiseled and add inches to vertical leaps that were already breathtakingly high. “Everything there has such a short window,” says Knight. “Obviously the turnover is much higher than at other places, and the speed at which they play is so high. To get [Wiltjer] functional in that system, he was doing a lot of running. A lot of hard lifting. A lot of following the lead of the other players who were a little more tailor-made for that system.”

Not only was Wiltjer physically underprepared, but, says Knight, “his body was actively fighting itself.” His bodied carried small inadequacies that manifested themselves in harmful ways. His hips were weak. His alignment, says Few, “was just not right.” By subjecting himself to the same workouts as his teammates at Kentucky — all-world athletes who were in peak physical condition — Wiltjer wore himself down. He had chronic pain in his knees and hips, pain that resulted in awkward, unnatural movements. Knight broke Wiltjer’s redshirt year at Gonzaga into three-month chunks. The first three months were dedicated almost exclusively to relieving Wiltjer’s pain. “It was physical therapy, really,” says Knight.

They worked to strengthen Wiltjer’s hips. Hurdles, yoga, stretching. This alleviated the pain in his knees. They worked on getting low, in a defensive stance, and staying there. “At first, it was hard enough to do that just supporting his own body weight,” Knight says. They did squats and movement drills in sand. Wiltjer would crouch in a defensive stance while Knight pushed and pulled on him, forcing him to strengthen the core muscles that maintain his balance. They also worked on lateral movement. Steve Nash, acting in his role as general manager of the Canadian national team, gave Few his own suggestions for Wiltjer’s development. Among them: learning to dance. Wiltjer never enrolled in formal dance classes, but he and Knight practiced “dancelike movements,” forcing him to move his feet in unconventional patterns.

As the year progressed, Wiltjer and Knight shifted their focus to absorbing and delivering contact. In one drill, Wiltjer would stand directly behind an inflated exercise ball and wait for Knight to fire a medicine ball at his chest. After taking the blow, Wiltjer would watch the medicine ball drop and then ricochet off the exercise ball. Wiltjer then had to collect himself and catch the medicine ball before it hit the ground. This, Wiltjer says, was designed specifically to help him take contact in the post. No more sticking his elbow into opponents’ backs on defense.

There was plenty more. Some days, Knight, who is 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, would put on a weight vest that made him 300 pounds. Then he’d force Wiltjer to box him out. Imagine trying to hold your ground in rebounding position against an opponent who is 14 inches shorter but 60 pounds heavier than you. Not only would you need to physically impose yourself on someone who’s larger; you’d also need to crouch low enough to match the smaller man’s center of gravity.

Wiltjer did his best to trust the program and trust Knight, but at times, it was difficult to see himself getting better. “It’s just unconventional stuff,” Wiltjer says. “If you’re doing pull-ups, or push-ups, or bench-pressing, or anything like that, you can see yourself getting better. You can count how many you’re doing, or you can see the weight getting heavier and heavier, and you can write it all down. But the stuff we were doing — it was a lot harder to measure that.” And yet, over time, the improvements came. Says Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga’s center: “I don’t want to say he was easy to push off the block, but you could definitely get him to move. Over time it got harder and harder. He would keep his balance, and he would push back a little bit.”

Wiltjer barely added any weight. (His Kentucky bio lists him at 239 pounds; his Gonzaga bio lists him at 240.) Today you can see a little more definition in his arms, but not much. “That was never the goal,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to bulk up. It was never about that. It was other stuff — getting quicker, getting stronger in the legs.” The changes were dramatic but difficult to spot. If you watch video of him now, his chest looks higher. His shoulders seem as if they’ve been pushed back. His knees rise more when he runs, and as he moves down the court, his torso remains upright. This isn’t the kind of late-night infomercial transformation that leaves people gawking at “before” and “after” photos. Wiltjer was trying to become a better basketball player, not a more impressive specimen.

So why did Wiltjer need to redshirt to pull off this athletic retrofitting? Why not just work in extra conditioning drills during the season? “It’s completely different when you know you have an entire year where you’re not going to play,” he says. “Not only do you know you’re not going to play, but the coaches know.” So there is no concern for keeping your body in playing shape, for nursing the small injuries that accompany intense training and competition. If you’re sore, you don’t have to worry about taking it easy in practice. You can keep going. If you’re exhausted, good. You can make yourself even more exhausted. There are no games to conserve energy for, no cycle of preparation and recovery. There is only the work, and there is, at times, not even a sense that the work will pay off.

Wiltjer could be forgiven if he ever began to question his decision. He’d spent the first half of his college career winning a national championship and playing in perhaps the most palatial environment in the entire sport. Now, although he was with a top program, he was doing drills that sometimes felt wholly disconnected from the game he loved, practicing with a team he couldn’t help in actual games, and playing in a Northwest outpost that, while home to a burgeoning basketball tradition, remains in a mid-major conference.

But the months passed and the work continued. And finally, last November, Wiltjer put on his Gonzaga uniform and joined the layup line before a meaningless exhibition against a Canadian school, Thompson Rivers. For the first time in his career, Wiltjer had butterflies.

wiltjer-kyle-gonzagaLenny Ignelzi/AP Photo

Three months later, Gonzaga sits at 26-1, in the top three of the polls, in contention for a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Wiltjer has made the Wooden Award watch list and midseason All-America team. He is the Bulldogs’ leading scorer (16.4 ppg) and third-leading rebounder (5.6 rpg), shooting 54 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3. He is indispensable to Gonzaga’s gorgeous multipronged offense, able to create scoring opportunities from the perimeter or the post. “When he’s on the court,” says Karnowski, “there’s always a mismatch somewhere.”

He arrived at Gonzaga desperate to turn himself into a player who could get buckets against smaller defenders. His first major test came in November, when the Zags played Georgia in the preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden. UGA, a likely tournament team, switched on nearly every screen, leaving Wiltjer to work against everyone from the bruising Marcus Thornton to the diminutive J.J. Frazier. He torched them for 32 points, most of which came in the post.

He also arrived wanting to erase his reputation as a defensive liability, and while he hasn’t transformed into a stopper, he can feel himself rising to the challenge when he guards an explosive offensive talent. “He’s still very much a work in progress,” says Few. “The effort is there, and physically he’s improved, but we still need more from him on that end.”

As much as anything else, he arrived hoping to turn himself into a more attractive candidate to NBA general managers. “He’ll get a shot,” says an Eastern Conference scout. “As much value as there is right now on that stretch 4 kind of player, teams are going to give him a chance. But he’s going to have to be an elite 3-point shooter. Not just good — one of the very best in the league. That’s the only way he’ll stick around. You know he’s not going to be a banger or grab many rebounds, but if he can shoot it at that level, you can overlook some of the other stuff.” The NBA types have noticed Wiltjer’s development at Gonzaga. “He’s obviously made some strides,” says the scout. “He moves better, he’s got some definition in his arms now, and he’s showing a little more than just the outside shooting.” But league front offices also credit him for his time at Kentucky. “He’s been around really good players,” adds the scout. “He’s had to find his role. He was basically playing on an NBA front line, and he found a way to fit in. So you know he can do that.”

When Wiltjer thinks back on his decisions over the last four years, he admits that there was a certain freedom that resulted from winning the national title as a freshman. “I’ll always have that,” he says, “no matter what, for the rest of my life.” So when, after his sophomore year, he took the time to evaluate his own development, he did so knowing that he’d already attained college basketball’s ultimate achievement. “That had to take away some of the burden, I think,” says Greg Wiltjer. “When that national championship team goes back to Lexington for reunions, Kyle will be there. He’s always going to be a part of that. And when you have that, maybe it makes your decision a little easier, allows you to do something in service of your dream.”

Now, as March approaches, Kentucky is blitzing through its schedule, undefeated and with its sights set on making history, with a team perhaps even more loaded than the one Wiltjer played for in 2012. But 2,000 miles away in Spokane, another team looms as one of the Wildcats’ potential serious challengers. Maybe it’s false to suggest Wiltjer chose personal development over the chance to win another title. Maybe at Gonzaga, he can get both.

“I made this choice just because I wanted to find the right situation for myself,” he says. “But I really like our team. We have the potential. I want to win it again.” 

Filed Under: College Basketball, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Kyle Wiltjer, Mark Few, Kevin Pangos, Kelly Olynyk, Kentucky Wildcats, john calipari, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn