If Kyle Wiltjer ever lacks for inspiration at Kentucky, all he has to do is think about his long-time mentor, NBA all-star Steve Nash.
Nash is a former teammate of Wiltjer’s father, Greg, and has been an inspiration to the Kentucky sophomore for years.
“He has been kind of a mentor to me. Whenever he was in town in Portland, (Ore.), we would go watch him play and see him after the games,” Wiltjer said. “Seeing a player of his caliber and having a relationship with him is great. Now the better I get, he kind of critiques me more and having him around is great.
“He is pretty amazing in what he can do. Watching him play and playing with him up there (in Canada), he’s amazing. He is so fluid on the court and can get where he wants. He is not the biggest, strongest or most athletic, that’s why I look up to him.”
Wiltjer got to be around Nash for three days when he worked out with other players hoping to be on Canada’s 2016 Olympic team.
“It was awesome. It was the first time everyone had got together like that. It was great. In the morning you worked out twice with NBA coaches and it was really hands on and really intense and I got to work on my game a lot,” Wiltjer said. “Then at night we played competitive games. It was great being with those guys, developing relationships and working on my game.”
Wiltjer’s father played for Canada in the Olympics, and Wiltjer has always wanted to do the same. He applied for dual citizenship when he was 12 years old so he could have that opportunity in 2016.
“I did it to have it there as an option, and I decided I wanted to be like my dad and play in it some day and thought the best way to do it would be to play for Canada like he did and I took steps to do that,” he said. “It would be great to do it. I just want to work hard, become a better college player and try out for the team and hopefully make it. I am doing a good job staying in the moment and just worrying about the season right now.
“But my dad was pretty pumped about me going up there. At first I didn’t know if I could do it because of school and practice and stuff. Then (coach John Calipari) pretty much said, ‘You should go,’ and there will be a lot of talent and coaches there, and (UK is) limited on how much they can do with us, so he said do it and my dad was really excited.
“His old teammate is like the coach now. Nash played with him, and he is like the GM. All the guys involved are pretty much his old teammates. He wished he could have gone, but he is just proud of me for going.”
Calipari may not have been proud, but he certainly was ecstatic for the opportunity it gave his sophomore forward.
“I knew he would be up there with good players and would get good coaching and good competition. He and I¿talked, and I said, ‘You need to go up there,’” Calipari said.
Friends at the workouts told Calipari “they loved him” and the way he shot the ball.
“He said, ‘Coach, there was this guy from the Lakers and he had us doing different stuff. I wish I could have stayed and was really good. I wish I¿could have stayed.’ I said how did you shoot and he said, ‘I was really making.¿I was killing it,’” Calipari said.
That’s what Calipari wants him to do for Kentucky. Wiltjer shot 43.2 percent from 3-point range last year and is the Wildcats’ most experienced returning player despite his limited playing time last season. This year Calipari expects more from him, and says Wiltjer will have no trouble fitting into the fast pace he wants to use.
“He will be behind the ball all the time. Now he will take it out and we are flying. If he rebounds, he will be behind. If he doesn’t rebound it, he will still be fine and we still may trail him into a dragging screen,” Calipari said.
“What I¿like is we fly and as the ball comes back it comes back to his hands and now you have a skilled player. ... I am not trying to compare him to somebody, but later in his career that’s what they did with (Larry) Bird. Then from that position they would go pick-and-roll, dribble hand-offs, he would shoot the 3. Here we go. It’s not there. Give to him and we will play through him.
“I see that being one of the things. I see us running random pick-and-rolls with him a bunch, because what happens is there is pick-and-pop, and they say you can switch because you don’t have to guard him in the post. But he is really a good post player. If you are too small, he will score on you. Right now he is having to score against those two long ones (Nerlens Noel and Cauley-Stein). When we put Anthony (Davis) and those two together (in the summer), two of three are bigger than Anthony.
“I really didn’t have them put their arms up, which if I had to do over again maybe I will next time. Willie’s arm length, reach is longer than Nerlens. With Kyle having to score over those guys, when you put a little guy on him he is scoring baskets.”
Wiltjer learned last year that he needed to get stronger, something he says he has done during the offseason.
“I¿definitely think I am a lot stronger. I worked very hard this offseason and like to think of myself as a stronger player, more explosive and stuff like that. But I need to not stop working on it. I need to keep working until the season starts and then start tapering down,” he said.
“I¿found out a lot last year about stuff that I¿needed to work on. Just getting stronger, quicker to become a better player. Playing against some of the best showed me what I needed to work on, and hopefully I¿have been working on the right things.”
Wiltjer could also be needed to take a stronger leadership role on this team, much as sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones did last year behind the lead of senior Darius Miller. However, this year there is no fourth-year veteran like Miller, who played in over 100 games.
“It’s kind of instinctive when the guys come and don’t even know where to go eat. Just little things like that, bringing them over at night when they are tired and getting them to shoot. Just teaching them the work ethic and the little ways around campus. Just there to show them and develop as a leader is what I have to do,” Wiltjer said.
“On the court,¿I am willing to do whatever role it takes to win. I am preparing myself for the biggest possible role I¿can. Just working on my body and conditioning. I want to have more minutes, but know there is a lot of work with that. I just don’t want to look back and say what if. So¿I am putting in as much work as I can and whatever happens happens. If I¿need to lead, then I’ll lead.”
Calipari says Wiltjer has to lead — and is learning how to do so.
“I keep telling these guys you can not just work by yourself. You have got to drag guys with you. One night I came into the office about 10:30 or 11, and light was on (in the gym) and I hear the ball bouncing, and I¿looked outside my office window and it was Kyle, who had grabbed a manager, walked across the street and had a great workout,” Calipari said. “I grabbed him and said, ‘Why wasn’t someone here with you? Don’t come over here by yourself. Drag a couple of guys with you.’
“The other side of it is they played the other day with Anthony, and I called Anthony into my office and said, ‘Tell me what my team looks like.’ The first thing out of his mouth, he said, ‘Kyle was way better. Way stronger. Can do more things. I really like where Kyle is right now.’ That is one of the things he said which was kind of neat.”
Wiltjer says bonding with the freshmen has been no problem.
“They are great. They are really hard workers. They are doing a good job of not looking at that (comparison to last year’s freshmen) when other people try to do that,” Wiltjer said. “They do a good job of focusing on themselves and getting better and what is going to make us so good is just building relationships and working on our game.”
Wiltjer tries to shoot nightly, even if the team has a workout during the day. He doesn’t count the shots he takes. Instead, he prefers to always make a certain amount of shots during any workout.
“I am big on getting extra work in because the more shots you get up, the better shooter you will be,” he said. “Being around Steve Nash, he is really big on getting on a schedule and just never letting up even if you are tired. Getting in there and getting the work is really beneficial to you daily.”
Wiltjer insists there is no extra pressure on the team this year because of last year’s championship.
“There is always going to be pressure on us just being Kentucky. Everyone is going to want us to be beat, so we have to realize that comes with the responsibility of playing with this college,” Wiltjer said. “We try not to look at that and know we are a new team that will play different. This is a new team and new year.”
However, he won’t forget last season’s success, or how much his parents enjoyed it even though they couldn’t be around as much as they wanted because of the distance from Oregon to Kentucky.
“My parents had a great time. Hearing from me personally on just how much fun I¿am having along with seeing the success of our team was great. They wish they could come to every game, but it is hard coming from the west coast. But they are so excited for our team and everyone on it,” Wiltjer said. “I am blessed to have parents that understand and want the best for me and are willing to do whatever I want. I can’t ever thank them enough for that.”Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times