The Gonzaga Bulldogs will certainly have one named called on Thursday night’s draft, but there also might be room for Kyle Wiltjer. Although Wiltjer hasn’t appeared on too many draft boards, he has been working out consistently with a variety of NBA teams and might have done just enough to get noticed in the late-second round.
The one-time Kentucky national champion transferred to Gonzaga to try something big in Spokane. He helped lead the Bulldogs to their first Elite Eight since 1999 and will go down in history as one of the best shooters the school has ever seen—and Gonzaga has seen some good shooters.
Wiltjer was one of the more gifted shooters in college hoops last season. Looking at his stats, you wouldn’t guess that he is 6’10 considering he averaged 20.4 points per game and shot 43.7 percent from beyond the arc. But that is where Wiltjer is most deadly, and that is where he is an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. Wiltjer is more at ease standing back and hitting jumpers, but he is more than willing to dive down into the post and hit jumpers over his opponent.
In the post, it is ugly. The way Wiltjer contorts to make the shot go in often times doesn’t make any sense. But since the shot almost always goes in, it doesn’t need to make sense. It is his jumper that is his most dangerous weapon. His combination of height and high release make him virtually unstoppable when he decides to step out for a three.
Wiltjer shot 49.1 percent from the floor last season, which is masterful if you consider he took more three-pointers than he did two point shots. He has the ability to create his own shot, but he is best when the point guards are causing disruptions that allow Wiltjer to slink off behind the line—he shot 73.3 percent last season on assisted threes.
He is also a fantastic free throw shooter, averaging 82.8 percent over his career. There seriously isn’t a big man that shoots the ball better than Wiltjer in the draft, and he is up there with the best of the small guys as well.
The thing with Wiltjer, and the reason he might not get drafted, is he is hardly the most athletic guy on the court. Wiltjer has made his career off of his shot, which he has innate talent for and has worked hard on. But he was slow and easy to beat on defense in college, and that issue will only get worse in the NBA.
What that will require from Wiltjer is that he can demonstrate that he can be in the right space in the right time to compensate for his lack of speed. Otherwise, his opponents will literally run circles around him. He has a couple extra inches on his wingspan, which will help him out, but if Wiltjer hopes to get drafted, he needed to prove during his workouts that he can hang on the defensive end.
Otherwise, Wiltjer is too much of a liability. James Harden is a prime example of how guys that don’t play defense can have successful NBA careers, but the list gets pretty short after James Harden. I’m not sure that Wiltjer has the speed to match guys in the NBA, but he doesn’t need to be a defensive stopper either. He just needs to find the right GM who is in love with his shooting touch and is able to look past the defensive issues while his NBA game grows up.
This is a moot point. Wiltjer is facing uphill odds according to most draft analysts. At this point, it seems more likely that if Wiltjer were to make a NBA squad it would be via the summer league/D league route. Those players don’t tend to have the most impact in the league, but some of those players have also had prolific careers as well.
What appears to be more likely for Wiltjer is a career somewhere abroad, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he can succeed there. Unfortunately, for Wiltjer, it looks like he will fall victim to the great college player, not so great NBA player style. There is a huge gap between the NCAA and NBA, in terms of athleticism and talent. For Wiltjer, the talent is there. The athleticism necessarily isn’t, and that isn’t something that just manifests overnight.