Jacob breaks down Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 senior forward from Gonzaga. A McDonald’s All-American, Kyle Wiltjer began his college career as a sparsely-used role player on Kentucky’s 2012 National Championship team. Moving up the depth chart (but still failing to crack the starting lineup) as a sophomore, Wiltjer played well – though unremarkably – in his second year in Lexington. Following the sophomore season, he made the calculated decision to transfer to Gonzaga, where he felt taking a redshirt season would grant him some necessary time to improve his body – which would, in turn, improve his draft stock.
Three years have passed since Wiltjer first arrived in Spokane and in that time he’s developed into one of the NCAA’s very best offensive players. He led Gonzaga to a 35-3 record as a junior and an Elite 8 NCAA Tournament appearance, and then followed that up by making the Sweet 16 as a senior. Throughout his time in college, Wiltjer’s dynamic scoring skillset stayed consistent – though his weaknesses on the defensive end persisted as well.
At 6’10 and 240-pounds, Wiltjer has good size for a power forward and has worked hard to increase his bulk, even if his body still leaves a lot to be desired. On top of that, he’s a below average athlete, struggling to bend his knees and having very little quickness and explosiveness, which hampers him particularly on the defensive end. His movements are somewhat mechanical, but he knows his limitations and rarely tries to do too much on the court, which increases his value and efficiency.
Wiltjer’s a smart player with a tremendous offensive skillset and a good team-first mentality. His usage hit a career-high 28.2% as a senior –the fourth highest rate for a big man among DX top-100 prospects. Still, his scoring and efficiency remained impressive, averaging 24.9 points per 40 minutes pace adjusted –fourth-best among DX top-100 prospects, with an excellent 63% true shooting percentage (16th). While his shooting percentages dipped a bit from his incredibly strong rate as a junior, he remained as one of the best shooters at the college level. For the year, Wiltjer made 53.8% of his shots from within the arc and 43.5% on shots from the perimeter.
Two ominous signs from Wiltjer’s senior year were his dramatic dip in assists and his increase in turnovers. As a junior, Wiltjer racked up 2.7 assists per 40 pace adjusted. That rate was cut by two-thirds to just 0.9 assists per 40 minutes pace adjusted as a senior. To make matters worse, Wiltjer’s turnover rate increased from 7.9% as a junior to 11.1% as a senior. In fairness, that’s still a low turnover rate. It is safe to say that Wiltjer is not much of a passer, though he does move off of the ball diligently enough to create additional spacing for his teammates to operate, especially considering how much of a threat he is to make shots with deep range.
Wiltjer’s biggest asset as a prospect comes with his accuracy from deep. He has a high and quick release with legitimate NBA range, making him extremely difficult to guard at his size. Wiltjer hit on 89-of-203 (43.8%) perimeter shots in his senior year, along with an impressive 51-for-118 (43.2%) rate on contested catch-and-shoot opportunities. Moreover, Wiltjer has expanded his shooting ability beyond mere set shots. In his senior year, Wiltjer converted on 33-of-74 (44.6%) jump shots taken off of the dribble in the half court – an impressive rate for a player with a slow first step and average ball-handling ability.
While he struggled as an underclassman against perimeter defenders who mitigated his shooting skills above the arc, Wiltjer added a respectable interior post game to his arsenal, forcing teams to reconsider who they’d use to guard him. Per Synergy Sports Technology, Wiltjer converted on 68-of-144 (47.2%) of his post-up attempts and scored on 40-of-65 (61.5%) of his shots around the basket in non post-up attempts as a senior. He’s not one to necessarily seek out contact, but he has a soft touch, sound footwork, and an array of moves around the basket that allow him to get off clean looks that look effortless, even against some of the nation’s top rim protectors.
Defensively, Wiltjer’s physical profile raises all sorts of red flags. His lateral quickness is nonexistent, and while he’s worked diligently to improve his core strength and balance, it’s still a noticeable liability in his game, as he often looks like he’s playing on stilts. He rarely contains penetration and doesn’t show much ability to navigate around a screen, consistently setting up unfavorable mismatches. He’s improved his defensive stance since his Kentucky days, but it still looks awkward and doesn’t do much to aid his balance or lateral quickness. He tries to compensate with his lack of agility by cheating on defense through anticipating where drivers will attack, yet he can be shaken off balance fairly easily with a simple crossover combination. Although he’s come a long way as an interior presence since his Kentucky days by increasing his intensity level and competitiveness, it will still likely be tough to find a position for him to guard.
Wiltjer’s struggles on the defensive end translate as a rebounder. His rebounding actually regressed in his senior season from 8.7 rebounds per 40 minutes pace adjusted to just 7.4 per 40 minutes pace adjusted. His 10.3% rebound rate placed below guards such as Gary Payton II and Malik Beasley in our database, despite playing a big man position in a less competitive conference.
Again, Wiltjer’s body type just doesn’t allow him to compete with NBA-level athletes. His lack of lateral quickness and his struggles on the glass will only be exposed further as his competition level improves.
Wiltjer clearly has the offensive skill-set to carve out a niche as a stretch big man in the NBA, but there are major question marks about whether a team could afford to play him if he proves to be as much of a defensive liability as many project. Still, with a strong showing in workouts, he could gain opportunities to prove that his offense is special enough for teams to overlook his shortcomings.