By now, you’ve should probably have seen or heard of Kyle Wiltjer: He’s the main cog to the multi-faceted offense of Gonzaga, one of the best teams in the country, fully capable of making a Final Four run. His story, too, is one you’ve likely should have seen or heard, even on this very site, a nice foil to Kentucky’s bonanza of an all-star team.
Three years ago, Wiltjer was part of the Wildcats’ seven-man rotation that swept all in its path to a national title. As a fellow freshman to Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, it’s rather easy to label Wiltjer as overlooked. Although he had his spot in the rotation — and was an important part of UK’s championship run — role players often aren’t highlighted amongst a team of generational players.
When others departed to play professionally following his freshman year, Wiltjer remained, attempting to assert himself with the hole left by former teammates. He struggled, unable to mesh as much as he wanted. During camp for the Canadian national team, Wiltjer met up with Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk, a player transformed by the Zags’ training staff. The knocks on Wiltjer was his body wasn’t strong enough to battle with the likes of NBA talents and had awkward feet.
He decided to make a change and transferred to Gonzaga, made comfortable by some insight from Pangos and Olynyk. He redshirted a year and has transformed into that talent he’s always envisioned, leading Gonzaga to a near-perfect season, a lone loss coming against Arizona in overtime, and on the path to a national title. So, what I’m saying, I guess, is if Gonzaga does win the title this year, blame Canada.
As a stretch-four, Wiltjer provides Gonzaga’s offense a possible mismatch almost any time he’s on the floor. He shoots 46.9 percent from three, forcing defenders to wander to the three-point line if he receives the ball on the perimeter. He also draws double-teams in the post, sucking in defenses to rotate to his side. From there he’ll swing it out until the ball will find the open man. If left alone in the post, well, he can torch opponents alone thanks to his new footwork and strength from his year off training.
And those awkward feet aren’t awkward no more: Watch Wiltjer move in the open court.
Wiltjer’s unique bag of skills has led him to scoring 17.4 points per game and averaging just under six boards. He’s a big reason Gonzaga has vaulted itself to one of the most efficient offenses this year, shooting 52.7 percent from the field, the best of any team in the country.
As much as Wiltjer may be a looming presence offensively, he doesn’t force shots. Wiltjer plays smart and efficient, emblematic of Gonzaga’s offense as a whole, willing to be patient until the best possible look opens up. But that doesn’t mean Wiltjer can’t get his. He’s been heating up in the Zags’ past five games, netting three double-doubles and going off against conference opponent Pacific, scoring 45 points and hitting 15 of his 22 field goals.
Wiltjer’s biggest knock has been his defense, labeled a near-liability his years at Kentucky. That too has improved, a player who can now hold his own. He still can get beat, though, which has caused him to fall just outside the top candidates for Player of the Year.
Though one thing is for sure: He’s the best player at any mid-major school. He will be the player responsible for a deep Gonzaga run (with a necessary assist from Kevin Pangos, of course) and someone everyone will have their radar on come March. And it will all be because he didn’t feel like he fit in at Kentucky any longer and wanted more.
Naismith Power Rankings
Each week, we’ll rank the top players in the Naismith race. These rankings are fluid and mostly for fun, but they matter … to someone.
1) Frank Kaminsky — I’ve struggled with ways to reinvent saying Kaminsky is highly “efficient” and “dominant” and a “game-changing big man.” Instead, for this season, if a big man impacts a game in ways both big and small, playing with a high basketball IQ and owns the low post, we should now call it Kaminsky-ing. Lot of syllables, I know, but becoming a verb immortalizes a person in the culture (think of all the times you have yelled “Kobe!” before firing a ridiculous shot) and Kaminsky’s season of flawless basketball proves he is a deserving candidate.
2) Jahlil Okafor — Whatever criticisms I’ve held regarding Okafor’s game may have been rendered meaningless following his performance against North Carolina. With his 12 points and 13 boards and his overall commanding presence, he freed Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook for open looks. But watch this and tell me a big man in college who can move like that off the dribble. You can’t.
3) Jerian Grant — Due to D’Angelo Russel’s recent regression, Grant has creeped back into the top three despite his struggles shooting against Syracuse (a bit more than his game of H-O-R-S-E against Jewell Loyd). He looked fatigued at times, settling for shots, but he deserves a break, quite literally: Grant averages 36.38 minutes per game, the highest of any player in a Power Five conference. (He’s ninth nationally for minutes played this season with 1,055 minutes). A lot of teams rely on one player to make them go, but no team needs a player like Notre Dame needs Grant. ND might be wise to lose early in the ACC tournament so Grant and the rest of the team can rest properly for March Madness.