Former Jesuit star preparing for big junior season

 - Former Kentucky Wildcat and current Gonzaga Bulldog Kyle Wiltjer figures to play a large role for the Bulldogs this season after sitting out a year following a redshirt season in Spokane.

Throwing up the three goggles brought Kyle Wiltjer more prominence and fame than he ever could’ve imagined.

As a freshman playing at the University of Kentucky, the former Jesuit legend carved out a specified niche, deploying his silky outside shooting ability with three-point bombs that stretched and spaced out opposing defenses. Wiljter’s rain-making ability from the land of plenty resulted in 35 made triples and 35 occasions of the 6-foot-11 forward holding OK signs up to his eyes and looking through the circle created by the thumb and index finger after splashing the three-ball through the cotton.

Wiljter’s range and proclivity for busting zone defenses off the bench chipped in to the Wildcats’ 2012 National Championship run, and it was key in helping the former 6A player of the year garner SEC Sixth Man of the Year honors as a sophomore. Already a fan favorite amongst the rabid Wildcat fan base because of his easy-going nature and goofy YouTube spoofs, Wiltjer seemed destined to cement himself in Kentucky lore as a beloved deadeye marksman who contributed consistently to head coach John Calipari’s revolving door of one-and-done freshmen stars by providing perimeter shooting and experience off the bench.

Yet, the former McDonald’s All American — who had programs from coast-to-coast slobbering for his signature coming out of Jesuit — longed for an expanded role at UK. Being pigeonholed as solely a sniper was not what Wiltjer was about. Wiltjer wanted to show there was more to his game than just sitting outside the three-point line and jacking up triples in limited minutes.

So, after a strong summer playing for Team Canada last year (Wiltjer was born in Portland, but has U.S./Canada dual citizenship because his dad, Greg, is Canadian and played on the 1984 Olympic team), Wiltjer decided to transfer from Kentucky to Gonzaga University, putting the former Crusader back on the West Coast.

The decision to leave the blue-blooded UK and Calipari was admittedly difficult, Wiltjer said. On campus, Wildcat basketball players are treated like rock stars, they’re the big men on campus. They play in front of adoring, sold-out home crowds every night, usually on national television against some of the best programs in the nation. Celebrity status in Lexington is certain, as are long runs in the NCAA tournament, SEC titles and the acclaim of the national spotlight.

It was a lot to give up. But, considering Wiltjer was already leaning toward sitting out a year anyway to refurbish his lanky physique and the desire to expand his skill set and become more of a threat in the post, the former all-state selection picked up and moved across the country to Spokane, putting his faith in the Zags and their renowned ability for player development.

By NCAA law, because Wiltjer transferred from one Division One program to another, the stretch forward had to sit out last season as a redshirt. Redshirting means delaying an athlete’s participation to lengthen their period of eligibility.

In a redshirt year, a student athlete may attend classes at the college or university, practice with an athletic team, and dress for play, but can’t compete during the game.

The year off was welcomed for a number of reasons. On the high school level, Wiltjer was an inside-out savant, a big man who unspooled an old-school post game complete with over-the-shoulder jump hooks, drop steps, spins, shakes, and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-like sky hooks. Pull up a two-year-old YouTube clip of Wiltjer from the 2011 McDonald’s All-American Game practices, and one can find Wiltjer tweaking former UK teammate and future NBA All-Star Anthony Davis with a slew of clever head and shoulder fakes and getting around the 2012 Dream Teamer with relative ease.

Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO: UK ATHLETICS/CHET WHITE - Former Kentucky Wildcat and current Gonzaga Bulldog Kyle Wiltjer figures to play a large role for the Bulldogs this season after sitting out a year following a redshirt season in Spokane.

Wiltjer’s inventive skills in the paint have never been questioned, and they weren’t at Kentucky. But at UK, the willowy Wiltjer’s lack of strength pushed him out of the post and onto the perimeter. The dearth of girth turned the lanky gunner into a sort of one-trick pony, a rotation player who only saw the floor if his shot was on and dropping.

Enter in Gonzaga strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight.

Wiltjer calls Knight “an innovator” who threw new exercises at the Wildcat transfer every day to keep his body guessing and prevent it from adapting to a certain style of training. It wasn’t uncommon to find Wiltjer in a bogged-down sand pit, jumping and sliding side-to-side in order to improve his explosiveness or catching tennis balls from Knight to enhance Wiljter’s reaction time. Knight broke down Wiltjer’s redshirt year into a quartet of three-month intervals with certain goals and marks to shoot for during each period.

“No two days were the same,” said Wiltjer. “It was a lot of fun doing a bunch of new things and just working hard. It’s tough because there comes a certain level where you have to mentally break through just because there was so much time, but Travis did a great job of keeping me going. It was definitely a year of hard work.”

Wiltjer was never going to drop windmill slams like Blake Griffin or play perimeter defense like Kawhi Leonard. That’s simply not his game. He’s a born shooter with a high basketball IQ. But, through hard work in the weight room and diligence sharpening his quicks, Wiltjer won’t be the liability he was once defensively or be resigned to casting jumpers from deep. He’s confident, stronger, and ready to remind the haters how well-rounded his game can look.

“I feel like the year off has helped me make a lot of gains in my strength and my quickness and movement,” said Wiltjer. “I just feel more fluid on the court. I definitely feel a lot stronger on the block, and I feel like I’ve really diversified my game. I’m a much more improved post presence.”

Strength-wise, Wiltjer said “all his numbers are up” in the weight room, and anticipates that added muscle will translate over to the floor. It helps that guys such as Olynk, Sacre and Los Angeles Laker small forward Elias Harris have been on the ‘Zags’ campus this summer, banging on Wiltjer in the post, priming him for the challenges that lie ahead.

“Early in the year, it showed me what I needed to work on,” said Wiltjer. “Now, it shows me I can compete with those guys every day they’re there.”

Photo Credit: COURTESY PHOTO: UK ATHLETICS/CHET WHITE - Former Jesuit Crusader Kyle Wiltjer made an impact at the University of Kentucky with his three-point shooting ability, making 35 triples as a freshman.

Wiltjer estimates he’s in the “235-240-pound range” but more importantly, he’s trimmed down his body composition and packed on more brawn to his sinewy physique. Wiltjer said his shot “hasn’t gone anywhere” and it’s still going to be the main meal ticket if and when he moves onto the professional level.

Nonetheless, morphing into a bigger, stronger power forward will only add to his capacity to handle the load in the post and give him the bulk needed to utilize that old school post game.

“It’s helped me use my shot to my advantage, taking people off the dribble,” said Wiltjer. “Getting fouled is a key thing I’ve been working on because I’m a good foul shooter.”

Jesuit head coach Gene Potter anticipates Wiltjer’s talent will fit in well with Few’s offensive and defensive philosophies. Both he and Wiltjer forsee Gonzaga being a program that gets the most out of the former Gatorade Player of the Year.

“His ability to play inside-out is pretty unique,” said Potter of Wiltjer. “The college game is just so physical. Those guys are absolute men inside. So, you have to be able to hold your ground in order to play down there. Kyle’s got great post moves, but it’s really hard when someone’s leaning on you and beating on you all night long. That added weight is going to be a big benefit for him.”

In a nutshell, the ‘Zags’ reputation for individual improvement precedes the program. Dating back to the late 1990s head coach Mark Few, the coaching staff and Gonzaga’s training staff are well-known for taking underrated talents such as Dan Dickau, Adam Morrison, Ronny Turiaf, Robert Sacre and fellow Canadian Kelly Olynk and transforming them into NBA-caliber players that go on to have long careers.

Playing professionally, whether it’s in the League or overseas is the utmost goal for any basketball player, and Wiltjer is no different. With two years to get better and more rugged in a program that systematically churns out pros, a new world of possibility for Wiltjer could be just around the corner.

A now redshirt junior, Wiltjer should be in the mix for a starting job at the four, playing alongside all-West Coast Conference big Przemek Karnowski and fellow countryman Kevin Pangos, getting looks from curious pro scouts to see if Wiltjer’s worthy of next-level consideration.

However, that’s looking far down the road. Wiltjer, who won three state titles during his time at Jesuit, wants to continue his victorious ways and help his ‘Zag teammates feel the same feeling he did back in 2012, cutting down the nets with Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrance Jones and a horde of collegiate stars.

“I have big goals for myself, but I want to win first,” said Wiltjer. “I think all the personal accolades will come after that. The team is first, and I just really want to make a run with these guys to The Final Four. Having won in the past, it’s just an awesome feeling to accomplish something as a team and have all the hard work pay off.”

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