- Tennessee Volunteers - January 24, 2017 - 9:00 PM EST - Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn. - ESPN
To hear John Calipari describe this year’s team – which he’ll tell you over and over again is different than last year’s – it will be fast and long.
Coach Cal has raved about Willie Cauley-Stein’s uncharacteristic speed for a 7-footer. Archie Goodwin is consistently a blazer. Nerlens Noel, for his size, can get up and down the floor with the best of them.
Thoroughbreds, to borrow a Kentucky cliché, would be a fitting comparison.
So where does that leave Kyle Wiltjer, who isn’t exactly the most fleet of foot?
Coach Cal said the 6-foot-10, 239-pound big man fits “perfectly” into how the Cats could play this year.
“He’ll be behind the ball all the time,” Calipari said. “So now he’ll take it out, we are flying, and if he rebounds it, he’ll be behind it. If he doesn’t rebound it, he’ll still be out ahead and he’ll be fine. And we still may try him into a dragging screen. What I like is we fly and as the ball comes back, it’s coming back to his hands. Now you have a skilled player.”
Wiltjer enters his second season at Kentucky as the lone returner who averaged more than 10 minutes a game during Kentucky’s run to its eighth national championship. To that effect, he’s the unquestioned leader of this season’s inexperienced team and one of the faces of another talented group that will try its hand at a second straight national championship.
But fast he is not – and that’s OK with Coach Cal.
Wiltjer has spent a lot of time with assistant coach Kenny Payne this offseason trying to become bigger, stronger, faster and more explosive, but part of what makes Wiltjer so difficult to guard is his ability to knock down perimeter shots.
Calipari doesn’t want to heave unrealistic expectations or comparisons on his sophomore forward, but he couldn’t help but compare Wiltjer to NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird in how the Cats can utilize his unique skill set.
Coach Cal envisions Wiltjer as the trailer of the offense. When the Cats push the tempo and find there’s nothing at the rim, Calipari thinks Wiltjer can be UK’s half-court anchor. Calipari tells his players to play to their strengths, and although Wiltjer will be needed as an inside threat this year, one of his greatest strengths is being a dagger from the top of the arc.
“I’m not trying to compare him to somebody, but later in his career, that’s what they did with Bird,” Calipari said. “From that position, they would go pick-and-roll, dribble handoffs, he’d shoot the 3. After it went here, we go, it’s not there, give it to him and now play through him. I see that being one of the things.”
Coach Cal isn’t saying Wiltjer is the next-coming of Bird, arguably one of the greatest players to play the game, but Wiltjer doesn’t mind the comparisons or the role.
“That’s one of my favorite players of all-time, hence my number, so it’s a great honor to be in a position like he was or do something like him,” Wiltjer said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com.
As the only major returning piece from last year’s national championship squad, Wiltjer is expected to see an increased role and a bigger responsibility to score this season. When afforded the opportunity last year, Wiltjer showed he could score in bunches, posting five double-digit scoring games, including a 24-point effort against Loyola in just 25 minutes of action.
But how exactly he’ll be utilized remains a great mystery because of his skill set and experience.
Exactly half of Wiltjer’s 162 shot attempts last season were 3-pointers – which he hit at a 43.2-percent clip – but Wiltjer thinks the number of long-range shots was more of a byproduct of a defined and needed role than an unwillingness to go down low or a lack of an interior game.
“I think a lot of people don’t know that I have a good post game,” Wiltjer said. “Hopefully I can show that and use my shot against people because they’re going to have to respect that. Just being versatile and just mixing it up will be key because it will make it harder to defend.”
As a matter of fact, on a team that features big men Noel, Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, Wiltjer is probably the best interior scorer. Whether it’s his ultra-efficient and difficult-to-block hook shot or his underrated strength, Wiltjer has displayed a deft touch around the rim.
Remember, this is the same guy that had to go against Anthony Davis ever day in practice a season ago. Now he has to figure out how to get shots over Calipari’s new twin towners, Noel and Cauley-Stein.
“With Kyle having to score over those guys, you put a little guy on him, he’s scoring baskets,” Calipari said.
Said Wiltjer: “Just being able to get my shot off against those guys, it makes you a better player without even knowing it, having instincts to try to get a shot over them because they’re such great shot blockers. Year in and year out, that’s why I chose to play here – to play against such great talent.”
That great talent, though, is young and inexperienced once again this year. And although Wiltjer is technically still an underclassmen, he’s viewed as one of the old guys as a sophomore.
Wiltjer knew he would be looked to for leadership when 93.3 percent of last year’s scoring output went to the NBA or graduated, but it didn’t really hit him just how young this season’s team would be until the first offseason practice.
In situations where Coach Cal used to call upon Darius Miller, Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb to tell his team how things were going to be, Wiltjer is now the man Calipari looks to as his guiding light.
“Cal always kind of asks me to demonstrate,” Wiltjer said. “In individuals this summer, ‘Kyle, show them how it’s done.’ It’s something you don’t think about and I just instinctively go in and show them.”
Wiltjer said the passing of the baton has happened subconsciously, but he’s welcomed it.
“I’ve been through the whole process last year and it was great going the whole way and getting to play,” Wiltjer said. “Hopefully I can use that experience to lead the new group of guys we have and show them how it’s done.”
The freshmen will ask him what to do on the court and where to go out to eat in Lexington, but it’s the little things like the “Goonies” videos he’s created with newcomer Cauley-Stein that define what it means to be a leader (Wiltjer said there are no plans in place at the moment for the next episode).
For as silly as the videos seem, they form team chemistry, said Wiltjer, who last year experienced firsthand how far a little unity can go.
“It sounds funny doing those goofy things, but hanging out together, being together makes us closer,” Wiltjer said. “Little things like that make it fun for us.”
Wiltjer dedicated his offseason to taking the next step in his game, but perhaps no experience benefited him more than the invite he received to the Canadian National Team’s training camp. Wiltjer won’t actually try out for the team until next summer, but the experience of going against NBA pros gave Wiltjer an insight into how hard he has to work to play at the next level.
It was an honor for Wiltjer to be a part of the same team his father, Greg, played on decades ago, but what Wiltjer took away from the camp was the way future NBA Hall of Famer and current Canadian general manager Steve Nash conducts himself.
“He’s such a professional in all aspects,” Wiltjer said. “He just treats his body right on and off the court. He goes hard in the workouts, but off the court he maintains his body so well. That’s why he’s been able to play so long. He’s just so fluid when he’s on the court. He always plays at his pace.”