Kentucky sophomore Kyle Wiltjer could have enhanced his chances of playing in the 2016 Olympics for Canada with his play last week during a gathering of about 30 of Canada’s top players in Toronto after former NBA coach Jay Triano was named coach of the Canadian national team.
“There were pro players and college players,” said Greg Wiltjer, Kyle’s father. “Basically, they brought in anybody that could be a potential Olympic athlete in 2016, or tried to do that. It had to be good for him. For me as a former player and Canadian, this is the best team the national team has ever had. When I played and we made it to the bronze medal game (in the Olympics), we had one of the better teams we’ve had. This is the best potential we have had. It is very exciting for our country and a great opportunity for someone like Kyle.”
Greg Wiltjer knew his son was on “the radar” of the national team because he played with Triano as well as current NBA standout Steve Nash, who is the national team’s general manager. Even the team doctor was the same team doctor Greg Wiltjer’s team had at the 1984 Olympics.
“I knew he was on the radar, but I¿was not sure he would be able to go with the commitments he has at school,” Greg Wiltjer said. “(Kentucky coach John) Calipari got involved and said it would be a great thing for Kyle if they could make it happen it would really be valuable experience for him.”
Two players at the Toronto workouts were Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson and San Antonio Spurs guard Cory Joseph.
Howard Kelsey, executive vice-president of Canada basketball, has known Kyle Wiltjer from the time he was born because he was on the 1984 Canadian Olympic team with Greg Wiltjer that lost the bronze medal game by three points.
“We have been best friends and I have always known Kyle,” Kelsey, who watched the Canadian players work out last week, said. “His progression from his seventh grade year to 11th grade was unreal. I had a picture of him when he was just a young kid and then he walks in as an 11th-grader at 6-9 and shooting the ball deep.¿He’s special.
“He was the best shooting big man from the outside. He has very unique skills to offer, as Kentucky fans know. There are very few 6-11 players who can shoot as deep and well as he can.”
One concern about the UK¿freshman last year was that he didn’t have the strength to bang inside with older, stronger Southeastern Conference players.
“He has definitely gained weight,” Wiltjer’s father said. “He’s hovering around 240 pounds now. You can physically see the wider shoulders and he can still put on more weight, but he is stronger. I have been in the gym a little pushing on him a little bit and I can definitely tell he is stronger. And his shot is as accurate as ever. He’s ready for a big year.”
Kelsey said Wiltjer had no problems holding his own physically at the workouts despite playing against older players.
“Physically, he was fine, and he was playing against numerous NBA players,” Kelsey said. “He held up fine and looks to me like he just continues to get stronger. Naturally any kid 18 or 19 has some growing and maturing to do, but it’s clear he is getting stronger. He’s showing more tenacity on defense, too. He has a will to play solid defense.”
Kelsey said the competition Wiltjer faced in the workouts can only make him better, too.
“It definitely helps him. Playing against better physical specimens makes anybody get better,” Kelsey said. “There were some bona fide NBA players that are men he was going against, and doing fine. We are projecting our talent for 2016 and he did fine from my perspective.”
Other young players at the workouts included 609 Trey Lyles, a top 2013 recruit, and Anthony Bennett, who picked UNLV over Kentucky and Florida this year. Highly-touted Andrew Wiggins, a junior at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep and a big-time UK¿target, was invited but could not participate.
“We have a lot of good young players with international experience, including Kyle,” Kelsey said. “Moving up to the senior national team for the next Olympics in 2016 is a natural progression for him. Also having played in a NCAA Final Four and won a national championship, something few people have the opportunity to do, is a major feather in his cap in terms of experience playing at the elite level.
“But at any level, very few big guys of his size can shoot the way he can. (Former NBA all-star) Toni Kukoc comes to mind, but he did not have as good of a pure shooting stroke as Kyle. Kyle shoots as well as a guard, but he’s 6-10, 6-11. He was required to shoot 3-pointers in different scenarios at Kentucky. He shot 3’s in large arenas where he had to sit on the bench and come in shooting. That’s very difficult, but was very beneficial training for him. He is not warm when he comes in, yet he is still hitting those 3’s off the bench. Not everybody can do that.”
The next step for the Canadian team will be for Triano and his staff to select a group to play in the world qualifying tournament next year in Venezuela with the goal of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.
“It’s a four-year cycle building up a team and winning games,” Kelsey said. “We have an exceptionally talented group of young players and that includes Kyle.”
For Kyle Wiltjer, who recently attended a camp in California, it’s back to attending class at Kentucky and getting ready for the start of UK’s season Nov. 1 when the Wildcats play their first exhibition game.
“It has been a pretty hectic summer, but he is doing what he loves,” Wiltjer’s father said. “He loves being a Kentucky basketball player. He’s in his element. The only tough time is being away from his family (in Portland, Ore.), but he has made some good friends in Kentucky and he loves Kentucky basketball.”