Ex-Cat Kyle Wiltjer looks back fondly on his two seasons for Kentucky. And he appreciates that the Big Blue Nation reciprocates in kind.
“It was one of the best times of my life,” Wiltjer said at the NBA Combine this week. “I built a lot of close friends who I’m still in contact with. The coaches are mentors in my life. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.”
Of course, Wiltjer played for Kentucky in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. He transferred to Gonzaga, where he blossomed onto the national scene. He scored 1,374 points in two seasons with the Zags and finished his college career with 1,909.
When asked what kind of feedback he heard from UK fans as he starred for Gonzaga, Wiltjer said, “It was really cool to see. Obviously, there’s the time difference and people were saying they were staying up late to watch our games. Really amazing to know a lot of people care.
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“They’re just an amazing fan base. They could have been a lot worse. I could have had 50,000 people hating me. So I’m really fortunate that they’re nice.”
Wiltjer smiled when asked if he wanted to play against Kentucky in one of the last two NCAA tournaments.
“It would have been fun,” he said. “The media would have been nuts. It would have been awesome. I was just hoping it wouldn’t be before the championship (game) because they were tough.”
His interviews with NBA teams here included the New York Knicks asking how the time at Kentucky prepared Wiltjer for the NBA. He said he benefited from playing against NBA-caliber players on a daily basis.
Wiltjer downplayed the notion that he was somehow stifled as a player at Kentucky. His college career arc followed the normal progression: transition to a higher level, gaining strength and stamina, working on weaknesses.
Sitting out a season as a transfer helped the process, Wiltjer said, as did Gonzaga’s high-low offense. The latter gave him open shots from the perimeter.
A reporter asked if Wiltjer believed his perimeter shooting (42.5 percent from three-point range in college) gave him an advantage as an NBA prospect. “Well, I hope so,” he said. “That’s what I do, and that’s what I take pride in. … Hopefully, that’s my in.”
Wiltjer played in the games at the Combine. On Thursday, he made three of eight three-point shots and scored 17 points. He acknowledged that he’s not assured of being drafted early and, therefore, wanted to make an impression here.
“If a team was saying, ‘We’re going to pick you 20th,’ maybe I’m not playing. But I don’t have any guarantees, and I’m still proving myself.”
Wiltjer said the time between now and the June 23 NBA Draft can make a big difference.
Wiltjer conceded that he probably will not be a lock-down defender. But he wants to show a willingness to mix it up.
“I’m trying to hit the glass,” he said. “I’m not getting one or two (rebounds). I’m getting five or six. That’s big for them.”
Game to remember
Former Wichita State guard Ron Baker has not forgotten the Shockers’ epic game against Kentucky in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Wichita State came into the game undefeated. But UK won 78-76.
“All those big-time games run across your mind,” Baker said at the NBA Combine. “When you leave college, you look back on it even more. I ran into a lot of good opponents in my years. Kentucky was one of the most athletic teams Wichita State had seen in many years.”
Baker recalled how the game came down to a last shot. Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet missed.
“It’s definitely going to go down as one of the best college games in a long time,” Baker said.
▪ Marcus Lee spoke highly of former UK teammate Tyler Ulis. “I wish he was playing with me right now,” Lee said. “He is a pit bull. That’s the one thing he’s displayed time and time again. They say he’s small, but in his mind, he’s the biggest person on the court.”
▪ Lee spoke highly of former teammate Karl-Anthony Towns, who has offered advice. “One of the coolest people I’ve ever met,” Lee said. “He knows how to have fun, and he also knows how to take things seriously at the right moment.”