Kyle Wiltjer makes 'basketball decision' -- he's going from Kentucky to Gonzaga
The lure of a quality program with a style suited toward his skills were the biggest factors in Kyle Wiltjer's decision to transfer from Kentucky to Gonzaga.
The former Oregon state high school player of the year and McDonald's All-American from Jesuit High has "mixed emotions" about leaving the Wildcats' program after two seasons.
"I've had a great two years at Kentucky," Wiltjer said via telephone Sunday from Omaha, Neb., where he was midway home on a drive from Lexington to Portland with his father, Greg. "But I want the Gonzaga people to know that I'm extremely excited to join their program. It's an opportunity to play for Coach (Mark) Few in a system that will help me develop. It's a great fit for me."
The 6-10, 235-pound Wiltjer, who turns 21 in October, was a key reserve as a freshman for the Kentucky team that won the 2011-12 national championship. He started 10 of 33 games and was the Wildcats' No. 4 scorer last season, averaging 10.2 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting .421 from the field, .367 from 3-point range and .810 from the foul line.
Word got out that he was thinking about a transfer in late June, before he departed for Russia as part of the Canadian team for the World University Games. When he returned on Wednesday, Wiltjer had decided to become a Bulldog.
Kentucky coach John Calipari returns 6-7, 240-pound Alex Poythress and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and is bringing in four front-line players among his six-man freshman class. Wiltjer -- an outstanding shooter blessed with high basketball IQ but not as athletic as most in Calipari's system -- opted for a change that he hopes will better prepare him for a future in the NBA.
"My criteria changed a little bit," he said Sunday. "I reevaluated my situation."
Wiltjer will redshirt next season and focus on working with Gonzaga's athletic training staff in building strength and agility.
"Gonzaga has a pretty good track record of players who have redshirted and done well," he said. "That enticed me at first."
Foremost among that group is Kelly Olynyk, the 7-footer who averaged just 5.8 points and 13.5 minutes as a freshman in 2010-11. After redshirting the following season, he came back to earn consensus first-team All-America honors in 2012-13, averaging 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting .629 from the field. Olynyk was taken by Boston as the 13th pick in June 27 NBA draft.
"A year to work on my body was the next step in the right direction," Wiltjer said. "I'll come back after a year, and I see myself stepping in and contributing. It's the style of play that plays like I play -- a really good execution team. That will be great for my skill set.
"It wasn't as much a decision to leave Kentucky; it was more of a decision where I found a pretty good fit."
The proximity to Spokane will make it easier for Wiltjer's parents, Greg and Carol, to see him play. But he said that didn't enter into his thinking.
"It's great to have them be able to watch some more games, but it's a basketball decision," he said.
Olynyk considered other schools, but Gonzaga had been on his short list out of Jesuit High, "and I just felt like it was the right school," he said. "I didn't want to waste anyone else's time."
Once he returned to the U.S., Wiltjer spoke by phone with Calipari.
"He had been gracious letting me look at schools," Wiltjer said. "I told him, 'Cal, this is what I'm going to do,' and he supports me."
An excellent student who carried a 3.4 GPA through his two years at Kentucky, Wiltjer was on target to graduate in three years. The transfer of credits may delay that a little at Gonzaga, but he'll still get his degree in business marketing well ahead of schedule and be doing post-graduate work if he stays through his senior season with the Zags.
Wiltjer is a member of the Canadian developmental team because he holds dual citizenship. His father is a Victoria, British Columbia, native who played on three Olympic teams for Canada. The junior Wiltjer said he started two games and got regular minutes for Canada's entry in the World University Games at Kazan, Russia. The Canadians went 7-2 in the tournament and finished fourth among 20 teams, beating the U.S. while losing only to Russia and Serbia. Prior to that, the Canadian team spent a week on an exhibition tour in China.
"Just a great experience," said Wiltjer, who hopes to play for Canada in the 2016 Olympics. "I've always been Canadian at heart because of my dad. It was a goal of mine to play for Canada. The trip to China and Russia is something I'll never forget."
Wiltjer's coach on the trip was Jay Triano, the Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach who is also the Canadian national coach.
"He's a great guy," Wiltjer said. "He really wants to win. He is very competitive. It's great having someone coach us who knows what it takes to play at the next level. That's where we hope to be some day."
Greg Wiltjer said he is pleased with his son's decision.
"I'm very proud about how he evaluated his situation and reached the decision," the senior Wiltjer said. "Once he realized what his goals were, it was clear Gonzaga is where he needs to be. He is back in the Northwest, playing for what has been the most consistent program on the West Coast for the last decade. He is going to be in a great place for the next three years."