When Kyle Wiltjer interviewed with the Houston Rockets before last year’s NBA Draft, he came prepared. He knew all about Daryl Morey, the team’s general manager. He knew all about the Rockets’ belief in analytics. He knew all about their fondness for the three-point line. Wiltjer, a 6-foot-10 forward with a willowy jump shot, was as personable as he was knowledgeable, or at least that was the way he came across.
“He was probably one of the greatest draft interviews of all time,” Morey said in a recent telephone interview, “which, honestly, sometimes makes me like guys less.”
In Morey’s worldview, carefully circumscribed by data, charm does little but cloud judgment. For one thing, he could not tell if the former University of Kentucky and Gonzaga University star was being authentic. Was it all an act? Morey also worries that coaching staffs are susceptible to playing favorites with players like Wiltjer and giving them more minutes than they deserve.
“He was like the student who sits in the front row, giving an apple to the teacher and sucking up to everybody,” Morey said. “I couldn’t get him to break form.”
It was an odd strike against Wiltjer, who had no idea at the time, or even for months afterward, how close he had come to blowing it during his interview.
“I didn’t know I was that good,” he said.
But if Morey had misgivings, he also saw potential and signed Wiltjer as an undrafted free agent. Wiltjer emerged as another experiment for a team that continues to push basketball boundaries.
While the Rockets were setting NBA records this season for the most three-pointers attempted and made, Wiltjer, 24, was launching shots from distant galaxies for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston’s affiliate in the NBA Development League. In 31 games with the Vipers, including the playoffs, Wiltjer took 313 three-pointers, which worked out to a league-leading 10.1 attempts a game.
“In this system, you’re supposed to do what you do well,” Wiltjer said before the Vipers’ season ended last week with a loss here to Raptors 905 in the D-League finals. “So if I’m open, I’m going to shoot it.”
His position, known in basketball parlance as the stretch 4, is vital to the Rockets. Ryan Anderson, who occupies that role for Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni, is one of the best in the business: a forward whose three-point shooting spaces the floor. Anderson’s mere presence means that defenders have a tougher time cluttering the lane to prevent Houston’s dynamic point guard, James Harden, from driving.
The Rockets have used the formula to great effect. They went 55-27 in the regular season, and they will face the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals starting Monday.
As for Wiltjer, the Rockets would love for him to develop into what Morey described as a Ryan Anderson type. They cannot employ enough three-point artists.
“I do think he’s on track to help us more next year,” Morey said.
An all-American at Gonzaga, Wiltjer had offers to sign elsewhere last summer but thought the Houston system was a good fit for his unique skill set. (Remember, he had done ample research on the team.)
“There aren’t a lot of stretch 4s out there,” Wiltjer said, “so when I heard that D’Antoni was going to be the coach and that Ryan was coming in, it was almost too good to be true on my end.”
For the Rockets, Wiltjer was a bargain-bin pickup. He was also insurance. Anderson, who averaged 13.6 points a game while shooting 40.4 percent from three-point range during the regular season, has a four-year deal with the Rockets worth $80 million that runs through 2020.
“We thought if Ryan were injured, Kyle would be a guy who could step in,” Morey said.
Wiltjer spent the regular season shuttling between Houston, where he made cameos in 14 games for the Rockets, and the organization’s D-League lab in Hidalgo, Texas, where the Vipers play their home games. The Vipers mimicked the Rockets in almost every conceivable way. Same sets. Same terminology. Same roles. As Anderson’s D-League facsimile, Wiltjer averaged 20.7 points and 6.9 rebounds a game while shooting 38.7 percent from three-point range (regular season and playoffs combined).
“I’ve tried to extend my range because of him,” Wiltjer said of Anderson. “I’ve noticed that there’s the NBA line, and he’s shooting 2 feet behind the line.”
At the same time, Wiltjer has learned to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of professional life. First, there was the disappointment of going undrafted. “You want to hear your name called,” he said.
Then he had to overcome the psychological hurdle of being sent to the D-League for the first time. Nobody, he said, really wants to be in the D-League. But he learned to embrace it, he said, as the best opportunity for him to expand his game. There are other players — more than a few — who view it as basketball purgatory.
“It’s interesting,” Wiltjer said, “because you come down here — and I won’t name names — but you see some guys you grew up watching, and you’re like, ‘Oh, this guy’s a beast!’ And then you go out and play against them, and it’s almost disappointing. You realize why they’re down here.”
Morey believes in the D-League. He thinks of it as an incubator for players, for staff members and even for ideas. During the 2013-14 season, for example, the Vipers obliterated all kinds of records for 3-point shooting while deliberately avoiding midrange shots — a brash experiment that has had a lasting influence on the organization, and on the rest of the NBA.
“That obviously gave us the confidence, along with Coach D’Antoni’s belief in it, that if we ramped up our style of shooting from distance a little more than most teams, then it could work,” Morey said.
In terms of player development, Morey does not subscribe to the long-held theory that young players are capable of absorbing wisdom by sitting on the bench. He believes that players need to play, and he cited Clint Capela, the Rockets’ starting center, as one of the Vipers’ more notable success stories.
“Most guys are pretty mad about it when they get assigned to the D-League,” Morey said. “But usually after five or 10 games of being down there, they enjoy it. They realize: Hey, I’m here. I get to play. I get to have a big role versus just watching from the bench. But Kyle was enthusiastic about it from the beginning. Kyle may be the most enthusiastic D-League player we’ve ever had.”
Matt Brase, the Vipers’ coach, said Wiltjer had worked to improve his rebounding and his defense, two areas of relative weakness. In particular, the Rockets want him to be able to defend different types of forwards: big forwards, slow forwards, quick forwards, small forwards. Brase said Wiltjer had been fully invested in the process.
“He’s the type of guy who will call me at night or hit me up the next morning: ‘Hey, did you see the wrinkle the Rockets added on this play?’” Brase said. “He’s trying to learn as much as possible.”
Wiltjer has rejoined the Rockets before their series against the Spurs. His contract includes a team option for next season. In the language of an organization that lives by hard numbers, Wiltjer said he would like to stick around.
“Oh, 100 percent,” he said.