It’s not always easy for a highly-touted high school player to adjust to college basketball and a more limited role early in his career than he might have anticipated.
And even if he accepts it, sometimes it can be difficult for parents to do so. Ask Stacey Poole Jr., who had a minimal role on Kentucky’s Final Four team last season and transferred to Georgia Tech recently because his father was not happy with his limited minutes this season.
Don’t worry about the same scenario happening with Kyle Wiltjer. He was a McDonald’s All-American, a consensus top-25 recruit and a gifted offensive player. Yet he’s averaging only 6.0 points and 13.4 minutes per game for No. 1 Kentucky (20-1) going into the Wildcats’ game Saturday at LSU.
“In high school and also with AAU, he was a lot more aggressive offensively,” said Wiltjer’s mother, Carol. “He’s used to scoring not only with 3-point shots, but also with a lot of post work inside. Now he’s trying to fill the role coach (John Calipari) wants him to do and trying to figure things out.”
So Wiltjer’s parents are not upset with his limited minutes so far this season?
“He is playing with a bunch of superstars that are going to be in the (NBA) draft,” Carol Wiltjer said. “He’s just got to figure out where he fits in. Defensively, he’s working really hard on that. Sometimes he’s thinking so much about defense that his offense kind of goes off a little bit.
“Also when you are being used as a sixth or seventh player, you are going in for shorter spurts and don’t have time to get into the flow of the game like you did in high school and AAU where you played 30 or more minutes (per game). He just has to figure it out and do whatever Coach wants.”
Calipari has always been trying to figure it out. He has lavished praised on Wiltjer, who hit two 3-pointers Tuesday at Georgia, for his offensive abilities both from 3-point range and inside. The Kentucky coach has said numerous times he has to find ways to cover Wiltjer’s defensive liabilities to take advantage of his scoring prowess.
“When you are a scorer like he is, it frustrates him when his shot is off. But when you are a scorer like him, you know to keep shooting,” Carol Wiltjer said. “Kyle understands all that.”
Did he get that understanding from his parents?
“We are a little different than the average parent,” she laughed and said. “We do not have daddy and mommy goggles on. (My husband) Greg played professionally, so he understands the game.
“We are both used to (media and fan) critics. Everybody has opinions. You can’t get caught up in that. You want people to always say glowing things about your son. But he is a freshman. When you are at Kentucky, the Kentucky effect kind of puts you in the eye of the storm with everybody. Everything is highlighted more than with any other team.
“If would be different if he was playing for Oregon or wherever. He has a role to fill at Kentucky and if he makes on mistake, everybody is watching. You just can’t listen or get caught up in all that. He has to keep working hard. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that fans do not know about.”
“All the players live basketball. They do not have a lot of free times between classes,” Carol Wiltjer said. “If you want to be good, you have to put in a lot of time. You give up a lot of extra stuff, but these players want to play at that level and are willing to do that. That’s why Kyle searched out a team like Kentucky. He did not want to be comfortable.
“He’s always been challenged. If he’s not good enough, he knows how to work to get better. We are going to keep supporting him and the team. Coach Cal really likes him and he knows how to push him. That’s just Calipari’s style and Kyle knew that going in. So did we.”
What makes this even more amazing is that the Wiltjers have only been able to get to Lexington from their Portland, Ore., home once to see their son play. He got home for three days at Christmas, but it could be some time before he sees his family again, because his 15-year-old sister is a star volleyball player and his 10-year-old brother plays basketball, too.
“It’s hard to get away,” Carol Wiltjer said. “We are just hoping Kentucky will get to the Final Four. We would really like to come to that. It’s so hard to get away for us. But Kyle will be fine. We support him and we support the coaches. He’s happy. We’re happy. We know his time will come.”