Two years didn’t seem like long enough with Kyle Wiltjer. The Jesuit High School graduate seemed like the perfect champion for The Kennel and the McCarthey Athletic Center.
But that was from the outside looking in. One thing you can say about Wiltjer is that he liked to compete. It would have been easy for the big to stay close to home and commit to a great program that is playing postseason ball every year. But Wiltjer went further, traveling 2300 plus miles and joining one of the best recruiting classes ever put together with Calipari and the heralded program of the Kentucky Wildcats. Much has been written about his journey back to the Pacific Northwest, but perhaps not enough attention to his time once he returned.
Wiltjer closed out his collegiate career closer to home, finishing the 2015-2016 campaign fairly similar to his junior campaign with Gonzaga. Wiltjer led the WCC in field goals made (260) and finished eighth in Division I in buckets. He also had the highest three point shooting percentage (43 percent) in the conference and landed as the 19th best in the NCAA.
Wiltjer’s efficiency took a dip from his 2014-2015 campaign, but that’s to be expected when you become the guy in the offense. Wiltjer shared playing out of position for much of the season as well, but honestly it seemed like he played out of position his whole college career. As a stretch four, Wiltjer needed to fill in for the absence of Przemek Karnowski while maintaining and improving his output as the team’s leading scorer.
With no Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr, the coaching staff leaned heavily on Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis early and often throughout the season. Wiltjer scored double digits up to conference play, averaging 20.6 points per game. But when Wiltjer’s output wasn’t there, often the Zags had trouble.
The turning point of the season, bookended by losses to SMU and Saint Mary’s, was also Wiltjer’s lowest output of the year shooting 21 percent. Wiltjer responded and shot 52 percent the rest of the season. The team needed to turn a corner, and that happened as the team rattled off seven straight wins, their longest streak.
In two seasons, Wiltjer completely advanced his overall game. A sharpshooter that hovered around the arc developed his body and footwork to be a formidable foe in the paint. Wiltjer played like a power forward. He put on a clinic when the Zags faced the at-the-time ranked Arizona Wildcats, scoring 33 points. Most of those points came from his midrange and inside play.
Then there were the games against Santa Clara, BYU and Portland where Wiltjer was able to dominate inside and out. Wiltjer also went from being a liability for the Wildcats on defense to above average for the Bulldogs. He also became a more efficient rebounder.
What is so interesting about Wiltjer’s two seasons with the Zags is the attention that he seemed to never get. Wiltjer did receive the most votes for the preseason All American team, but will likely not see that same affirmation when the final selections come out. And much like last year, Wiltjer’s game got lost with the attention earned by a teammate.
Like Pangos in 2014-2015, Sabonis turned heads in 2015-2016. While Wiltjer was filling the bucket and piling up major minutes, scouts and the media were salivating over Sabonis (rightfully so). He finished 2015-16 with the fourth most points scored in a season by a Zag, a year after scoring what was then the seventh most.
Much is made of Pangos’ three point shooting, but Wiltjer eclipsed Pango’s single-season high threes from 2013-2014 this season (86 to Pangos' 84). And Wiltjer joined Frank Burgess as the only Zags to be listed in the top 10 in single season points and field goals twice.
Wiltjer made as many shots in two years as Steven Gray made over four seasons. He made more threes than Adam Morrison. He scored more points than Dan Dickau.
A shaky season for the Zags after the success of the previous year will no doubt affect the memory of Wiltjer in navy, white and red. But the numbers prove that he may be one of the best players to ever wear them.