UK Basketball: Comparisons don't concern more relaxed Wiltjer
Kyle Wiltjer drives past Kentucky teammate Alex Poythress during Big Blue Madness last week. Wiltjer has more experience in coach John Calipari¿s system than any other current Wildcat. (Clay Jackson / October 18, 2012)
“It is an honor to be considered like someone of that caliber, but I like to define my own game and be as versatile as possible, so that’s why I continue to work on my post game and my outside shot as well,” Wiltjer said. “It is pretty early, but we have a lot of good shooters on this team as well. It is hard to compare to last year because we want to have our own identity, so we will see once this season gets rolling.”
Comparisons to last year’s national championship team are going to come much more often than Calipari’s comparison of Wiltjer to Nowitzki. Still, Wiltjer understands this is a new team after the top six players from the championship team left Kentucky and that the current Cats cannot be overwhelmed by expectations others have for them.
“It is just something that kind of happens. Cal does a great job of just having us take it one practice at a time and not worrying about the games ahead or anything like that. That’s huge for us,” he said. “He is just reminding us to work hard and it is a long season. Just trusting him as a coach is key.”
Wiltjer played in all 40 games last year, averaged 5.0 points per game and made 35 3-pointers while shooting 43 percent from long range. He made a 3-pointer in four straight NCAA Tournament wins over Iowa State, Indiana, Baylor and Louisville.
The sophomore is Kentucky’s most experienced player in Calipari’s system. Senior Julius Mays played two years at North Carolina State and one at Wright State before transferring, but this is his first season at UK. Sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow played at North Carolina State two years ago before transferring last year, but he has yet to play in a game under Calipari.
“Now it is like I know what to expect and everything to do. I feel like I was relaxed last year, but I do know more about what to expect. Getting through a year helps. Last year I had to learn to just keep pushing myself. Cal wants to push each individual player farther than you have gone and build on that,” Wiltjer said. “That was probably the hardest thing to learn and understand last year. The season is a grind. Conditioning is tough. Just little things like that.
“It is good to have experience and being able to teach the younger guys what to do. We are incorporating in the young guys as much as we can. It is a great feeling to know what I have to work hard on and kind of knowing what to expect starting the season.”
Wiltjer is not normally outspoken, but he knows he has to be more of a leader on this freshman-dominated team.
“I want to do whatever my team needs to win, so I have done a lot of work in the offseason. So whatever role is expected of me, I will try my best,” he said. “Guys like me, Ryan, Jon (Hood) have to lead. Anyone who has been through it can help lead, whether you play 5 minutes or 20 minutes. Me having that experience, I feel like I can be a leader. It is something that kind of comes instinctively. Just showing people around and showing them drills. Little things like that helps out.”
He’s become “close” with Harrow on and off the court, something he thinks will help them both this season.
“We are at our best when we help each other out, and that’s going to be a big key this year. We have been working out together and getting shots up together, spending time together is key, because when your close off the court it helps on the court, whether you know it or not,” Wiltjer said.
Wiltjer also understands that no matter what he does, Calipari will expect more from him.
“That is what makes us so great. We get better because he expects so much of us and we keep improving,” he said. “If I brought four guys into the gym to work out, he would want six and so on until everyone, and the managers, was in the gym. That’s how he is. That is what makes us so spectacular. He pushes us and we push each other. That’s what makes it special.
“We are not worried about who we are playing. We are working on getting better as a team and individually.”
Wiltjer could find himself on the court with freshman big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein at the same this year if Calipari decides to go with a big lineup.
“They have such great length defensively, and offensively being able to throw those lobs kind of opens the game up for a lot of people, and on defense they help you out so much. If we can get those guys on the court together and learn how to play together, it will be tough to defend and it would be fun to be out there with them,” Wiltjer said. “I did a lot of things in the offseason, but most importantly I worked on getting my body stronger and quicker. I worked on all parts of my skills and conditioning as well so there is not one thing I didn’t work on, I just kind of did it all.”
That includes a hook shot that he didn’t get to use often last year because he was normally a perimeter player.
“I have worked hard on getting stronger and being able to play down there and hopefully it is something I can show Coach and utilize this year a lot more. I’ve really worked hard on that shot,” Wiltjer said.
He got to spend time with his father, Greg, a former pro basketball player, the last two weeks when the dad was in Kentucky on business. His father even got to attend Big Blue Madness.
“We hung out a lot, just kind of utilizing this time here. We didn’t get to do that last year. It is a great feeling to see him and see a familiar face and kind of get to hang out with him when I am not in the gym,” Wiltjer said. “But we are always chatting basketball. We were watching NBA games. It is something that is just part of our lives and something you never kind of shy away from. We were even shooting together.”