The fadeaway shot left Kyle Wiltjer’s hands from beyond the 3-point arc. The ball settled into the net as Wiltjer was regaining his balance a good three feet out of bounds.
Swish. No ovations, no teammates offering high fives. Just another glimpse in practice at the broad range of skills possessed by the 6-foot-10 transfer from Kentucky who is redshirting at Gonzaga per NCAA rules.
Wiltjer spends his days lifting weights and trying to improve his agility. He spends his afternoons practicing with the Bulldogs. He sometimes returns in the evening to put up more shots.
“It’s a weird feeling just watching,” the Portland native said of game days. “It keeps me humble because it’s getting me better and I know I’m going to come back stronger. That’s what is getting me through it, knowing I’m becoming a better player.”
Strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight is putting Wiltjer through many of the same drills that helped reshape Kelly Olynyk’s body during a redshirt season two years ago. Olynyk, who had the benefit of being in Gonzaga’s program for two years before redshirting, followed with a huge junior season and was a first-round pick in the NBA Draft last June.
Knight used innovative drills, including some with tennis balls marked with letters or numbers, designed to force Olynyk to process information quicker and then move his feet quicker.
Wiltjer said a year dedicated to working on his body and refining his game were primary reasons he decided to transfer.
“Wednesday is tennis ball day,” Wiltjer said. “A huge key for us is changing my body composition, not necessarily gain a certain amount of pounds but just change my body and get stronger.”
Wiltjer is expected to be a key player in Gonzaga’s frontcourt next season. He will have two seasons of eligibility.
“Amazingly skilled,” coach Mark Few said, “and with the skill comes a guy that can shoot the ball every bit as well as Kevin (Pangos) can. He’s very crafty. He’s dealt with his limitations all his life so he’s figured out ways to get his shot off.”
Wiltjer hopes to add muscle and dexterity to his 230-pound frame. He’s already seeing results.
“We broke the whole year up into 3-month intervals and just having different goals,” Wiltjer said. “I really feel I’m moving a lot better, my game has taken a leap and it’s only been three months. I’m lucky to have a staff trying to get me better. I’ve got assistant coaches on me every day in practice, even though I’m not playing (in games).”
“It makes me happy to know I’m in the right place and getting better.”
The Bulldogs have been operating at less than full strength and that will continue this week. Sam Dower Jr. (lower back) is improving, but he’s not 100 percent. David Stockton is feeling better but he’s still fighting a nasty flu bug. Center Przemek Karnowski missed practice Monday and Tuesday with the flu.
“I had it and it just kicked my rear end,” Few said of the flu. “It just shuts you down, you have no energy at all.”
Kevin Pangos will likely be dealing with pain from his turf toe until he can take extended time off. Pangos sat out one practice earlier this week as well as the team’s scheduled day off. Stockton also had an extra day off.
Gonzaga has just one game this week, at Portland on Thursday.
“We definitely needed a little down time,” Dower said.