John Clay: Good reasons for Wiltjer to stay at Kentucky, better ones to leave

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 25, 2013 

Kyle Wiltjer is putting on his traveling shoes.

Kentucky basketball's junior-to-be could turn around and head right back to Lexington, like the unhappy kid who runs away with a knapsack only to return before sundown — do kids still do that?

Such an outcome seems unlikely, however, after his "Dear John" letter to the Big Blue Nation on Monday in which Wiltjer indicated he would explore other career options in other geographic locations in hopes of finding the right fit.

If the timing is a surprise, the intent is not. That plush UK locker room at Rupp Arena figures to be crowded with major talent this season, what with six new McDonald's All-Americans pulling on blue-and-white uniforms. Wiltjer was likely to be squeezed off the floor and onto the bench.

If you're going to spend a season watching instead of playing, better to do it when the eligibility clock isn't ticking.

"Now as I head into my junior year," wrote Wiltjer in his letter published on the UK Athletics website, "I recognize my new and adjusted goals require me to make some very difficult upcoming decisions."

In another words, Wiltjer wants to make it to the NBA. They all want to make it to the NBA. His current career arc suggests that isn't happening.

After all, Wiltjer was an up-and-down player last season for a team that lost in the first round of the NIT. His game needs improvement. His body needs a transformation.

A dead-eye perimeter shooter, Wiltjer needs to get stronger, quicker and more aggressive on defense. Those aren't easy fixes. It's going to take more than one trip to the weight room to change those.

So, you ask, why doesn't Wiltjer just redshirt at Kentucky? He's already here. He's comfortable, does well in school. Plus, there's a historic precedent with glowing results.

After averaging less than six points on Rick Pitino's title team of 1995-96, Jeff Sheppard redshirted the next year then helped Tubby Smith's 1997-98 team hoist another national championship banner, married ex-UK women's star Stacey Reed and lived happily ever after — or something like that.

Times have changed, however. Transferring is as popular as Instagram. John Calipari is now the UK coach and no one recruits better than John Calipari.

Even if Wiltjer stays and makes himself a much better player in 2013-14, there remains the distinct possibility Calipari will bring in an even better player for 2014-15.

Then Wiltjer is stuck in the same spot, or if he then elects to transfer, he loses a year of eligibility.

What does UK lose if Wiltjer continues on his way? The Cats lose a good shooter, but upon further review, I doubt they will miss the experience and leadership some fear.

Yes, Cal's 2012 title team benefited from key holdovers Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. But I don't see Wiltjer offering the same through-the-wars leadership Miller provided. Wiltjer is not as talented as Jones or Lamb, nor did he get the same amount of playing time. To be a leader, you may not have to star, but you do have to play.

Wiltjer wants to play, and certainly there's no crime in that. Most kids who go to college to play basketball want to actually play basketball. Wiltjer has the talent to play regularly in the right spot.

Now the question is does he have the fortitude and desire to do what's necessary to raise his level of play enough to reach his ultimate goal?

The guess here is that he will find out someplace else, and hosannas to John Calipari for saying it can be anyplace else.

Calipari isn't Bo Ryan or Mike Gundy or Kevin Stallings. He won't restrict Wiltjer's choices. If coaches can break contracts and continue employment wherever they choose then student-athletes should be afforded the same opportunity. It's only fair.

Hopefully, Kyle Wiltjer finds what he's looking for and reaches his goals. In travel, it's not where you start. It's where you finish.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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