UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer transfers to Gonzaga to jump-start career

Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer grabbed a loose ball in the first half against Vanderbilt in February 2012. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer grabbed a loose ball in the first half against Vanderbilt in February 2012. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Basketball aspirations, it seems, won out over the comfort that comes with being a celebrity in the Big Blue Nation. Kyle Wiltjer cited his athletic ambition as the reason for transferring from the University of Kentucky to Gonzaga.

"I feel like in my basketball career, I'm facing a make-it-or-break-it moment," Wiltjer said in a tweet Friday afternoon. "And the primary factor in this decision is transforming my body. I'm choosing to transfer to Gonzaga because I feel they have a proven plan in place to help develop players similar to me, which has seen great results."

With the help of a redshirt season, Kelly Olynyk went from a complementary player at Gonzaga to a 2013 NBA Draft lottery selection. Wiltjer clearly wants to make a similar transformation.

"I believe with hard work I can maximize my development at Gonzaga," Wiltjer said in the tweet. In an interview with the Spokane Spokesman-Review, he said of Gonzaga, "They've done a great job in the past with guys like Olynyk and others who have had a year off to work on their bodies."

Wiltjer also cited style of play as a factor. Kentucky emphasizes athleticism and speed, two attributes he lacks.

"(Gonzaga's) style of play fits me well," he said. "... When I found out what they have to offer I was really comfortable."

But Wiltjer, who must sit out this coming season as a transfer and then have two seasons of eligibility remaining, apparently was vexed by the notion of leaving Kentucky.

"This past month has been very emotional and challenging for me," he said in the Twitter statement. "Whether to transfer or not has been one of the toughest decisions of my life, so I would like to thank everyone for being so supportive through this process. I feel like in my basketball career I'm facing a make- it-or-break-it moment ... . The last two years at UK have been a valuable experience and I'm very grateful for them."

Saying his heart would always be in Lexington, Wiltjer said he would continue to seek advice from UK Coach John Calipari.

"I'm saddened that (Wiltjer) is leaving the program," Calipari said in a separate Twitter message, "but if he thinks it's in his best interest to go somewhere else, I support his decision."

Calipari thanked Wiltjer for contributing to Kentucky's 2012 national championship team. The UK coach reiterated his belief that Wiltjer, whose potential had been dismissed in some segments of UK fandom, can develop into a productive college player.

"Go prove me right!" Calipari said he wrote to Wiltjer. "You can play!!"

But whether Wiltjer would play for Kentucky, or at least play as much as he desired, seemed problematical. A prospect in the high school class of 2014, Craig Victor, noted earlier this month how a player who doesn't move to the NBA after one season for Kentucky can be swallowed up by subsequent recruits.

"That mass production on an annual basis should instill a sense of urgency," Victor said at the Adidas Invitational camp. "You better feel ready to enter the NBA Draft after your freshman year or you risk getting overwhelmed by the next heralded recruiting class and then the one after that. ... These guys come out as one-and-done. If you can't get it done in that first year, that next group is coming."

Wiltjer became the second member of last season's UK team to transfer. Ryan Harrow has moved on to Georgia State.

Wiltjer, who averaged 6.9 points in his two UK seasons, announced last month that he would search elsewhere for "a more significant role." His original "Letter to BBN," as released by UK Athletics, sounded an I've-done-all-I-can-do-here tone.

"Heading into college, my dream was to win a national championship and compete with and play against the best players in the country," he said in the letter. "Without a doubt, I accomplished both of these goals in my two years at Kentucky. Now as I head into my junior year, I recognize that my new and adjusted goals require me to make some very difficult upcoming decisions."

Attention immediately focused on Gonzaga, one of the schools on Wiltjer's list coming out of Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore. Olynyk, approximately the same size as Wiltjer at 7-foot and 238 pounds, averaged less than six points and four rebounds in his first two seasons for Gonzaga. After redshirting his third year, he became a star. He averaged 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds this past season and became a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.

Gonzaga apparently has been looking for a forward with size. The Bulldogs missed on Josh Davis, who transferred from Tulane to San Diego State, and Mike Moser, who moved from UNLV to Oregon.

Arguably, the high point in Wiltjer's two UK seasons came as a freshman against Penn State in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. With several Hall of Famers watching from courtside seats in the Mohegan Sun Arena, he scored 19 points and more than once made hook shots. Former UK All-American Cliff Hagan, whose signature shot was the hook, nodded approval.

Or maybe it was UK's 87-74 victory at Mississippi on Jan. 29 of this year. With Nerlens Noel in foul trouble, Wiltjer came off the bench to score 26 points, grab seven rebounds, make three steals and get credit for three assists. No doubt the performance helped Wiltjer become Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year.

His nadir came earlier that month at Vanderbilt. The Commodores spoke candidly of targeting Wiltjer, whose lack of foot speed made him a liability on defense. Calipari used his post-game news conference to issue a get-better-or-get-lost ultimatum.

"Unacceptable," the UK coach said of Wiltjer's defense after the Cats won 60-58.

Calipari said that Vandy scored 14 of its 24 first-half points against Wiltjer. "They went right at Kyle," Calipari said.

"Either we play zone or you don't play," Calipari said he told Wiltjer. "Fourteen points (in the first half) against Kyle. No, we're not accepting that."

After the game, Vandy's Kedren Johnson said of Wiltjer, "He's not too quick sideways."

Calipari has noted that Wiltjer must compensate for a lack of foot speed by anticipating plays and playing with a nastier attitude. "Figure it out," the UK coach said. "... You do everything you can to stay in the game or you accept it. They went at Kyle every possession I had him in the game. Every single possession."

Before last season, Wiltjer anticipated a bigger role in 2012-13. Calipari spoke of how another player not considered especially fast, Larry Bird, thrived late in his career as a trailer.

In this scenario, Wiltjer would inbound the ball, then act as a trailer as his teammates tried to seize on any fast-break opportunity.

"If the ball comes back, it's coming back to his hands," Calipari said. "... It's not there? Give it to him, and now we'll play through him."

That failed to materialize. Wiltjer played more than 21 minutes once in UK's final eight games last season. UK's loss in the NIT at Robert Morris saw him play a season-low 10 minutes.

2013-14 UK men's basketball projected roster

Player Ht. Wt. Cl. Pos. Hometown

Willie Cauley-Stein 7-0 244 So. F Olathe, Kan.

E.J. Floreal-x6-4 185 Fr. G/F Lexington

Aaron Harrison 6-5 215 Fr. G Fort Bend, Texas

Andrew Harrison 6-5 215 Fr. G Fort Bend, Texas

Dominique Hawkins 6-1 170 Fr. G Richmond

Jon Hood 6-7 212 Sr. G Madisonville

Dakari Johnson 6-11 250 Fr. C Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tod Lanter-x6-2 189 Jr. G Lexington

Marcus Lee 6-10 205 Fr. F Antioch, Calif.

Brian Long-x5-9 155 Jr. G Dumont, N.J.

Sam Malone-x5-11 185 Jr. G Scituate, Mass.

Jarrod Polson 6-2 189 Sr. G Nicholasville

Alex Poythress 6-7 239 So. F Clarksville, Tenn.

Julius Randle 6-9 245 Fr. G Plano, Texas

Derek Willis 6-9 200 Fr. FMount Washington

James Young 6-6 210 Fr. G/F Rochester Hills, Mich.


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