We’ve all had moments or times in our lives when we’ve desperately wanted something to fit or to work out. We have probably even gone to great measures to attempt to make something work, maybe even giving it more time and attention than it even warranted. Whether it be a relationship that isn’t good for either party, but you just can’t quite let go of, even though you know in the end it simply won’t work out. Or maybe it’s an old beloved car that has seen a couple thousand more miles than it should have… the one you drive into the ground, even though it may not quite be safe. Or may be it’s a dress, or an old pair of jeans that no longer fits, but you keep just in case you happen to drop back down to your senior year of high school wait. Whatever it is, we’ve all had something like that. We’ve all experienced that kind of want for something to work, even when the writing seems to already be on the wall that it just won’t.
In a lot of ways, that describes Kyle Wiltjer and John Calipari. Despite the best of intentions by both sides, in the end, the pair just wasn’t a fit.
John Calipari is a good basketball coach, and that might be understating it a bit. The proof is in the numbers, the victories, the players he has put in the NBA and especially wrapped up in that national championship banner that now hangs in Rupp Arena, the one he helped bring back to the Bluegrass. John Calipari is a good basketball coach, and he has made it work for a lot of players at a variety of different programs.
Kyle Wiltjer is a good basketball player. Players don’t just get 5-stars tagged next to their name coming out high school because of one good game here and there. Scouts line small gyms across the country, living and breathing the AAU circuit– identifying and rating talent. Sure, sometimes they miss. But Kyle Wiltjer wasn’t a “miss.” Wiltjer’s athleticism never leapt off the page, but his skill set was unique and worthy of making him a coveted prospect coming out of high school. Wiltjer showcased the depth of his offensive abilities at times last year for Kentucky, and has proven himself to be a go-to weapon when playing in an offense more suited for his game (just look at his numbers for the Canadian national team this summer). Kyle Wiltjer is a good basketball player, and he has made it work in a variety of settings.
John Calipari is a good basketball coach and Kyle Wiltjer is a good basketball player. The two simply can’t be at their very best though together.
When Kyle Wiltjer chose Kentucky, he was choosing to bend a bit to try to fit a mold that was not necessarily cut out for him. Wiltjer was not a stereotypical Calipari basketball recruit. Calipari often recruits size and athleticism, preferring a player who can go 1 on 1 and beat his man on a consistent basis. Wiltjer knew that wasn’t his strength, but he wanted the challenge of playing with and against the best basketball players in the country day in and day out. He said as much when he picked Kentucky without even visiting the campus. When John Calipari recruited and accepted Kyle Wiltjer on his basketball team, he was also choosing to bend a bit to try to mold his team in a slightly different way to compensate and fit a player like Wiltjer. Calipari saw Wiltjer as a unique type of shooter and offensive weapon who could perhaps benefit from open looks created by the more dynamic players on the court driving into the lane. Wiltjer could be the guy to trail on the fast breaks and his wide open threes. And of course, we all remember the highly-talked about “hook shot” that Wiltjer was bringing with him to Kentucky.
Both parties were willing to bend a bit in order to make it work. Both parties were willing to step out of the box a little bit to try to merge and create mutual success. Both parties took a chance, and as with any chance– sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. For two years, Wiltjer and Calipari gave it a shot. There was no bad blood. There were no discipline issues. The major rifts between player and coach or player and program that you often see in the wake of a transfer weren’t apparent. In the end, it came down to two parties who genuinely tried to make a fit when a fit simply wasn’t meant to be made. Either Wiltjer was going to have to compromise or Calipari was going to have to compromise, and either way… neither Wiltjer or Calipari was going to be able to be the best possible versions of themselves. We saw it play out all last season. If the offense was going to revolve around Wiltjer, it wasn’t going to fit the style of play for the rest of Calipari’s team. Calipari’s teams are known for aggressive and overwhelming defense. That wasn’t going to happen with Wiltjer.
Again, I say this with honest sincerity– I think both Wiltjer and Calipari wanted to make things work. Kyle Wiltjer by all accounts loved everything about playing at the University of Kentucky. And by all accounts, John Calipari genuinely liked the kid. The pairing just wasn’t meant to be.
I think Kyle Wiltjer has a chance to really succeed at Gonzaga. Wiltjer will have a chance to be perhaps the most offensively productive version of himself there. Will he make it to the NBA? Maybe. Maybe not. Gonzaga and Wiltjer will have to do a lot less adjusting and bending to make it work though.
John Calipari will continue to succeed at Kentucky. Just look at this year’s roster. Wiltjer may have had a chance to be a big contributor as a senior, but Calipari’s team will not have to make as many adjustments to accommodate for a player not as athletically inclined and quick on defense as Wiltjer. Calipari has said for years now, “we can’t hide you here” at Kentucky. He had to find ways to hide Wiltjer at times. He will no longer have to do that.
Even with the best of intentions, in the end… it just wasn’t a fit.