Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer was considered one of head coach John Calipari's "seven starters" - often claiming that any of his rotational players could lead Kentucky in scoring - and now he is the only one of those seven remaining. The Portland, Ore., native was one four freshman in Calipari's third consecutive No. 1 recruiting class in 2011 along with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
Of the four freshmen last year, coming in it was evident that Wiltjer was going to need the most work and time to develop. Despite being one of the best shooters on the team and nice touch around the rim in the post, there was still a lot of room for improvement.
Still, his natural ability made him a hot commodity in the recruiting circles, and several times last season he showed exactly why. He scored his career and season high with 24 points against Loyola, going 3-for-6 from the 3-point line. On three more occasions did Wiltjer match that 3-point shooting output last season.
But with the mass exodus of his teammates to the NBA, Wiltjer knows that this season is his time. And he's doing all he can to make sure that he's ready to rise to the occasion.
"(I'm) Working on my individual game all around, skill-wise," said Wiltjer. "Just getting in the weight room working on my body, getting stronger, quicker, because that will help my game so much."
Those were clearly the areas that he struggled with last season. Defensively he struggled to body up in the post due to his lack of strength. His lack of quickness also made it difficult to stay with his man in transition. For those same reasons Wiltjer struggled on offense. While he displayed the ability to score around the basket early on in the season, bigger, stronger defenders often pushed him off the block and kept him too off balance to be effective in the paint.
After a full offseason, it appears that Wiltjer has already taken that next step. One of his former teammates has noticed a significant difference.
"I called Anthony (Davis) into my office after (an open gym) and I said, 'Tell me what my team looks like,' " said Calipari. "And the first thing out of his mouth, he said, 'Kyle is way better, way stronger, can do more things. I really like where Kyle is right now.' "
It certainly doesn't hurt going up against some of the best college talent in the country on a daily basis like he did last season. Davis' size is not something anyone could figure out how to defuse last season, and maybe neither did Wiltjer, but going up against that defense every day couldn't hurt.
He'll be facing many of the same daily challenges this season in practice going up against freshman Nerlens Noel, also a notorious shot blocker, and the No. 1 player in this year's recruiting class and another 7-footer in Willie Cauley-Stein.
"Right now he's having to score against these two long ones (Cauley-Stein and Noel)," said Calipari. "And when we put Anthony (Davis) and those three together (for a picture), two of the three were bigger than Anthony.
"With Kyle having to score over those guys, you put a little guy on him, he's scoring baskets."
While the size and strength may have kept Wiltjer from having success in the post last year, this year will be different. Mainly because Wiltjer is different. After getting a chance to spend his offseason in the weight room, Wiltjer is immediately seeing results.
"I'm a new player," said Wiltjer. "I can do a lot more things than they know. I'm just going to try and use my post-up game to my advantage this year because even if they're strong or longer, I can still get my shot off. So it's just a variety of weapons that they haven't seen and continuing to run the court in transition, get rebounds and play better defense."
Wiltjer can be the Larry Bird of the dribble-drive
Wiltjer isn't the prototypical player for Calipari's dribble-drive offense. He's not the quickest player on the team, though he'll be improved in that area this season. And he's not known for his ball handling or ability to slash to the basket. In a lot of ways, he doesn't necessarily fit in. So how does Calipari think Wiltjer will fit in to the offense this season?
"Perfectly, and I'll tell you why: He'll be behind the ball all the time," said Calipari.
Obviously Calipari was aware of Wiltjer's weaknesses when he decided to recruit him. And obviously he had a plan. Rather than exclude Wiltjer for the things he can't do, Calipari plans to embrace all of the things that Wiltjer brings to the table.
Wiltjer will likely take the ball out of the basket in most situations and be a trail guy as the ball moves ahead of him. Once he gets down the floor, the offense may run through him as a skill guy who can move the ball around or knock down a shot for the perimeter. They may create dragging screens or play screen and role with him. There are actually multiple options for Wiltjer in that role. What he will be asked to do may be reminiscent of "Larry Legend."
Larry Bird, yes, the Boston Celtics great who was best known for his silky-smooth perimeter game may not be the best comparison for Wiltjer. After all, those are some of the biggest shoes to fill in the entire history of the game. But what Wiltjer can do for the dribble-drive offense may make the two seem more alike by design.
"I'm not trying to compare him to somebody, but later in his career that's what they did with Bird," said Calipari. "From that position, they would go pick-and-roll, dribble handoffs, he'd shoot the 3. After it went here, we go, it's not there, give it to him and now play through him."
Wiltjer expects to be more than just a perimeter player this season after bulking up and working on his post moves, but in the fast break and initiation of the offense he may find himself on the perimeter quite often. What may strengthen the comparison is their similarity in size and ability in the post as inside-out offensive weapons.
"I see us running random pick-and-rolls with him a bunch," said Calipari. "Because, what happens is, there is pick-and-pop, but they'll say, 'Well, you can switch because you don't have to guard him in the post,' but he's a really good post player. If you're too small, he will score on you in there."
Leadership role underway in year two
As one of the elder statesmen of the 2012-13 Kentucky basketball team, Wiltjer, just a sophomore, knows that he is responsible for doing exactly what Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and the rest of the veterans did for him in his freshman season: lead.
"It was instant," said Wiltjer of his leadership qualities. "Just when the guys get here, not knowing where everything is, you just instinctively show them and how things are done. So I'm willing to do whatever role it takes to become a better team. So if that means me being a better leader, than I'm all for it."
And after being here just one season, it didn't take Wiltjer long to understand how things were done. Why? Because they did everything as a team.
Last year's team chemistry was nearly palpable. They got along together on and off the court. They shared. They were unselfish. They totally bought into Calipari's message. One year later, with almost a completely different cast of characters, could this team grow together as closely as the last year's was able to?
"We're a super-talented group just like last year," said Wiltjer. "Everyone works hard and we're surprisingly really close already, so it's a great feeling to have such a great group of guys again."
That closeness, that bond, starts at the top, and Wiltjer wasted no time getting acquainted with his new teammates. In fact, he and Caulie-Stein created an on-camera super-duo self-titled as "The Goonies" where they would document their experiences together outside of basketball and put them on YouTube. The mixture of the two skyscrapers walking around combined with their infectious personalities made for very entertaining web content.
They clicked immediately.
"We're just kind of laid-back guys," said Wiltjer of himself and Cauley-Stein. "We started hanging out in the summer. We're all very close, to be honest. But just kind of hanging out with him, we have similarities, just trying to have a good time when we're not playing basketball."
But as much as it was instinctive for Wiltjer to lead, the seed had been planted awhile ago, and the example had already been set.
Just as last year's team began doing, mostly in thanks to Kidd-Gilchrist's highly regarded work ethic, this year's team is continuing last year's tradition of "The Breakfast Club." The entire team gets up early in the morning before class and works out to get the day started. Kidd-Gilchrist began doing it on his own, but Calipari encouraged him to start dragging some of his teammates with him. Before long, it was the entire team participating in the early a.m. activities.
Now, Calipari is doing the same with Wiltjer, particularly after witnessing his sophomore getting in an extra shooting exercise on his own. After burning the candles late into the evening as Calipari tends to do, he talked to Wiltjer after his work out. Though he was enthused by Wiltjer's efforts, his message to him was to make sure to start getting his teammates involved.
"I heard the ball bouncing and I look outside my office window and it was Kyle, who had grabbed a manager, walked across the street and had a great workout," said Calipari. "I grabbed him after and I said, 'Why wasn't someone here with you or a couple of these guys? Don't come over here by yourself. Drag a couple guys with you. We've got to start doing that.' "
His message was received loud and clear. When talking about his leadership role on the team this season, Wiltjer was quick to echo the sentiments of his head coach.
"It's big because you're coming in not knowing what to expect and just having someone there to help you through it is just really key," said Wiltjer of helping the newcomers. "Like Coach Calipari says, it's hard to do things on your own, but when you do them as a team it's just a lot easier."
But it hasn't just been the freshmen that Wiltjer has been helping. Though Wright State transfer Julius Mays is a full three years older, Mays has relied heavily on Wiltjer and redshirt sophomore Ryan Harrow to help him learn a new offense.
"I still have to learn the new system just like all of the other guys," said Mays. "It's a good feeling to have because you also have younger guys in Kyle and Ryan who were here a year so you can be able to look up to guys that are younger than you and have been here."
This season there is a Thanksgiving Dinner-sized helping Wiltjer's plate. Between trying to elevate his game and take it to where his team needs it to be, along with being a team leader as sophomore who played just over 12 minutes per contest last season, much of the weight of Kentucky basketball is squarely on his shoulders.
With last year's experience still fresh in his mind, the sophomore forward is more than ready to embrace the responsibilities bestowed upon him this season. He already has.
"It's a good role to have," said Wiltjer. "But I just want to improve off of last year. That's my main goal. Whatever it takes to win, that's what I'm going to do."