As a member of the Kentucky Wildcats, Kyle Wiltjer won a national title as a freshman in 2012 and followed it up by taking home the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 2013. But after his sophomore year he made the difficult decision to transfer to Gonzaga. Forced to sit out last season by NCAA regulations, this year he’s exploded back on the scene, developing into one of the most dynamic forces in college hoops this season and leading the 14-1 Bulldogs in scoring and blocks. Sportsnet caught up with Wiltjer to talk about his experience with the Canadian national team, his new-and-improved game, and his growing list of friends in the NBA.
Sportsnet: So you’re heading to practice now? It must be a fun environment considering how well your team is playing so far.
Kyle Wiltjer: Yeah, so far. We’re taking care of business, even though we’re just short of remaining undefeated. We’re honestly just focusing on getting better at this point of the season—listening to the coaches in practice, coming together as a team, and not worrying about our record.
Your only loss came in overtime against Arizona, the third-ranked team in the NCAA. Looking back, did you deal with that loss by trying to take a positive out of a negative?
We want to win them all. We were just short in that game, and we’ve talked since about taking what we didn’t do well and learning from that. Same with the things we did do well. I think it was a great learning experience and it showed that we can compete with anyone, which gives us that confidence moving forward. But at the same time, we don’t want to be content losing by three.
You’re also off to a great individual start this season and you seem to have added to your game—particularly in your low-post play. What’s working for you right now?
A lot of it is a result of my teammates finding me with the ball. They’re doing a great job—especially with Kevin [Pangos] at the point—in finding me in places that I like to score. Aside from that, I think a big reason why I’ve been successful here is that I’ve worked hard to try to diversify my game; to play inside and out, and not rely on one thing. The more I can do that the harder it gets for opposing teams to scout me and know where I’m going to score. To be able to add that low-post threat has really helped my overall game, I think.
So you had a monumental decision to make in choosing to leave Kentucky. I know you’ve talked about it before, but I’m curious as to who you turned to for advice while making your decision?
When I was going through that process, obviously my parents were a big help—they’re the closest to me. But I was actually talking to Coach Cal [Kentucky’s John Calipari] a lot, too. He was awesome through all of that, a big help. And that’s rare because a lot of coaches, if you asked to leave, they’d turn the other cheek and the decision would be on you. But he wanted me to be successful and wanted me to find the right fit as well.
What’s one thing people might not know about Calipari that you picked up spending a lot of time around him?
He’s very loyal. If you’re in his system and give it your all, no matter how much you contribute he’s in your corner. He’s a very personable guy and gets a lot of attention nationally, he’s in the spotlight. But he really cares and has checked up on me along the way, letting me know he’s always there and wishes me the best.
Were you in touch at all with fellow Team Canada members and Gonzaga players Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos while contemplating the switch?
Yeah, I reached out to both those guys. Playing with Canada I got to see their games develop firsthand—Kev especially, because I played with him in the summer leading up to my transfer. I was really able to talk to him and let him know what I was thinking, and he was great. Because he’s my friend he wasn’t, like, recruiting the way Gonzaga coaches probably would’ve liked. He was a friend of mine and just wanted to see how I’m doing in making a decision.
What’s the biggest difference in you since the transfer?
I think it’s just in my approach while having to sit out last season, using every day to get better and not being content. I had a long time to get better and that’s what I tried to do, to get better and gain that confidence that I am one of the best and go out every day and play hard.
Lexington, KY vs. Spokane, WA. Break it down.
They’re both great towns just because the fans are so loyal to their teams. But being in Spokane, I mean you’ve got to talk about the weather. That’s the only thing I can think of that is crazy different about this place. It’s nuts out here. Like, right now I’m in my car with the heat on and I just do not want to go into my dorm because it’s freezing out.
Who were the players you looked up to growing up, the guys you maybe modeled your game after?
I’ve always been a fan of Kevin Love, who’s also from Oregon, which meant I was always able to see him play. Guys like Kyle Singler, another Oregon guy. I’ve always looked up to Ryan Anderson’s game, and have been able to see it mature through college and now into the NBA. He’s a guy I’ve really tried to model my game after.
What about your old man, Greg, who played for the Canadian national team in his day?
He’s had a tremendous impact. He showed me a ton in terms of the fundamentals and he’s the reason why I have a really good touch around the basket—it came from doing a bunch of simple drills growing up. And he really helped to evolve my post game as well, because he was a true post player. You know, he didn’t really have a great jump shot in his career, so he also made that a huge emphasis with me when I was growing up, having me work on my shot and get that repetition in.
So despite being born and raised in Oregon, you made the early decision to play for Canada. What’s the story there?
In seventh grade my dad knew a couple of people who worked in the program and they just said, “Hey you should fill out your dual citizenship so Kyle at least has the option of playing one day.” Once I got to high school, I decided to go that route and play for Canada. I’d always wanted the opportunity to play in the Olympics some day, and not only had my dad played for Canada but my older sister did as well. So I wanted to keep that tradition in the family.
Could you have anticipated a time where you’d be fending off all these NBA players for a roster spot?
It’s crazy. I’ve been lucky to play against some good talent over the years, and to see some of my friends develop the way they have has been awesome—going to the league and the success that they’ve had. It’s been a huge motivator for me. Even guys outside the Canadian team, like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who were in my freshman class [at Kentucky]. But then there’s guys like Kelly Olynyk, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph—seeing their success has been awesome.
It must be helpful staying in touch with guys at that next level.
Oh yeah, definitely. It motivates me, but also reminds me that it’s a goal that is attainable. They did it, and so having them there to ask questions and motivate me is huge.
So you mentioned your former teammate at Kentucky, Anthony Davis. Did you know then that you were playing with a guy who, in three years, would be arguably the best player on the planet?
Just seeing his transformation has been unbelievable. Being in the same freshman class you’re always together, in and away from the gym. Going into the season nobody knew what to expect—people knew who he was, obviously, but he certainly wasn’t who he was today. Just seeing his work ethic, seeing that pay off, every step of the way he’s just getting better and better. And he’s stayed humble throughout it. It’s great to see a guy with that kind of success early in his career just stay that same guy, the same character. There are a lot of people who can have the success he’s had and become a different person with all the fame and money. But he’s got a great family around him, and he’s a great guy.