I was surprised this afternoon to be on hole 16 at Stonecrest (sitting by the way at +2 and poised to have one of the best rounds of my life) to hear the news that Kyle Wiltjer was leaving Kentucky. The news caused me to scramble, calling anyone and everyone to get info and to play the final three holes 5 over par (look, 79 for me is not bad, but I was set to have a career day). While the news took me a bit off guard, now with some time for hindsight, it isn’t shocking that Kyle has decided to leave Kentucky. Let me start there by saying that I fully expect Wiltjer to never again play in Lexington. While I know that he and Calipari both left the option open for a return in their statements, from talks I had today, no one believes he will come back. Over the last 48 hours, multiple conversations took place to try and convince Wiltjer to stay and he has decided to explore his options. It would be a shock if he returned.
So why did it happen? Simply put, Kyle Wiltjer wants to play at a school where he will be the focal point of the team’s offense. He believes (correctly I might add) that he possesses a number of offensive skills and he doesn’t want to be limited to a three point shooting role, or an occasional post-up player. He wants to go to a school where the offense can go through him, play to his strengths and his weaknesses can be hidden. One major weakness is defense and he knows that Calipari is loathe to play zone, so going to a school where that is a consistent option if necessary, appeals to Wiltjer. But most importantly, he is a guy that believes he does better with the ball in his hand. That was showcased during his tremendous performance for the Cats versus Ole Miss. However that occurred when Kentucky was talent depleted. That won’t happen next year and it likely won’t happen again in the future. Calipari has too many great players to give Wiltjer the ball and run the offense through him…that won’t happen here and for Kyle to maximize his potential, he may need it, and that has to occur elsewhere.
With that said, the folks at Kentucky wanted Wiltjer to stay. They think he can be a valuable asset to next year’s team and still has his best days ahead. However an issue with Wiltjer has always been his work ethic and his desire to fix the things that he must change to reach his maximum potential. Since arriving at Kentucky, he hasn’t gotten appreciably stronger or faster…both things that must happen, likely to play in the NBA, but certainly to play in the UK system. Wiltjer just hasn’t done those things and while he is still a great shooter and has many post-up skills, he hasn’t become the complete player that he can be. Kentucky coaches thought this year, with the competition in practice and the new talent on campus, that would take place. It looks like they won’t get a chance to see it come to fruition.
Wiltjer spent the last few weeks playing for Team Canada. In that system, Wiltjer saw what it was like to be the center of an offense and he excelled. I think he wants that now for the rest of his college experience. On that team, he played with some of the guys he knew in high school and AAU and a couple of those players are currently on Gonzaga. I would expect that the Zags would be his most likely destination and I think the bonds formed on Team Canada are a big part of it. But I won’t blame Team Canada for all of it. The reality is that after the season, many rumors swirled of a Wiltjer transfer. He denied all of them, but where there is that much smoke, there has to be some fire. Much had been made of Wiltjer’s parents moving to Kentucky, but whereas stories were reported of them buying a house in Lexington, in the end they never actually got one. In his post-season conversations with the UK staff, Wiltjer asked about his role and seemed primed for another year in Kentucky going after his second national title. But clearly there were other thoughts going on as well. Those thoughts became reality after his Team Canada experience.
I wish Kyle Wiltjer the best. I hope that he ends up coming back to Lexington, even though I think it unlikely. He is a great kid, with a wonderful personality and he was a good contributor for his two years here. While not crucial to the chase for #9, I think this Kentucky team could use him next season. However it might be best for him to find a system that best fits what he does. If that is the case, then this move makes sense and I hope for him much success.