How Kyle Wiltjer Decision Impacts Gonzaga and Kentucky

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How Kyle Wiltjer Decision Impacts Gonzaga and Kentucky
USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Wiltjer is transferring to Gonzaga, where he'll have two years left to play.

Once Kyle Wiltjer announced he was considering transferring and Gonzaga was a possibility, it was hard to believe he would do anything else.

Gonzaga offered Wiltjer the best opportunity to continue to play for a winner, develop and become a pro. Oh, and he could play close to home and there was playing time available. Easy choice.

On Friday, Wiltjer made it final. His father told CBSSports.com that Wiltjer will transfer to Gonzaga.

We'll get to what this means for Kentucky shortly, but let's first go over how significant this is for Gonzaga.

Let's backtrack real quick to 2011... 

Few had a skilled Canadian big man who lived mostly on the perimeter and needed to add strength. He had averaged 5.8 points as a sophomore. There wasn't a spot in the starting lineup for him the next year and Few convinced the big man who a little too soft to red-shirt in the middle of his career. 

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kelly Olynyk became an All-American after sitting out a season following his sophomore year.

That red-shirt was Kelly Olynyk, a 2013 lottery pick. 

Wiltjer has some Canadian blood. He needs to add strength. He has decided to sit out a year in the middle of his career. He is Kelly Olynyk 2.0!!

OK, not quite.

Wiltjer had better sophomore numbers, is a few inches shorter and one would have to wear some Gonzaga-color glasses to see him as a future lottery pick, but the comparison mostly fits. He could have close to an Olynyk-like impact at Gonzaga and he has the potential (with some strength and seasoning) to be a future pro.

If Olynyk in any way helped make the Wiltjer decision easier, he has helped Gonzaga reach another level. 

Wiltjer is a well-known name in college basketball because he was a McDonald's All-American and because he played at Kentucky. It's not like Gonzaga was grasping for notoriety, but if Wiltjer is successful like Olynyk, it only furthers Gonzaga's reputation.  

Mark Few has always had good teams but last year's squad was a cut above. The difference was the Harris-Olynyk combination. There are few teams in college basketball that can put two bigs on the court who can score.

Few has always done a good job of getting the best out of scorers even if they aren't fleet of foot, and that's why Gonzaga made so much sense for Wiltjer. Kentucky's system wasn't designed to get players like Wiltjer their looks. The Zags will. 

Wiltjer will be able to play in the high post—Few ran a lot of high-low action last year—and Wiltjer's ability to knock down jumpers should help create space for Karnowski.

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That's not to say that Wiltjer will be stuck behind the arc. Wiltjer has a back-to-the-basket game as well, and a year to build up his strength should help in that department. 

The 2014-15 lineup was already looking pretty salty because—barring a surprising early entrant—the Zags will have a senior backcourt of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Gerard Coleman, a transfer from Providence who averaged 13.2 points as a sophomore in 2011-12. The Zags will also have Louisville transfer Angel Nunez, who could start at the 3 if Few decides to play with a more traditional lineup instead of three guards. 

In the middle, Gonzaga will have Przemek Karnowski, who is a load at 7'1", 300-plus pounds with good hands and a soft touch. 

With Sam Dower graduating next year, Wiltjer fills the one hole that Gonzaga needed to fill. 

With two years left in a system that will highlight his strengths, there's a much higher probability that Wiltjer becomes a star than had he stayed at Kentucky. Even if Wiltjer still loved UK, Gonzaga just made too much sense.

 

Kentucky Impact 

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The reason Wiltjer wanted to leave is the reason Kentucky should be just fine. Wiltjer was likely going to take a dive down the depth chart. At the forward spots, the 'Cats have incoming freshmen Julius Randle, Marcus Lee and James Young along with returning starter Alex Poythress. Wiltjer may have been the third string at both the 3 and the 4 spots. 

John Calipari still could have found some minutes in special situations for Wiltjer because of his ability to shoot outside, but it's hard to convince a double-digit scorer who was a McDonald's All-American out of high school that he's a niche role player. 

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Playing time would have been sparse next season for Kyle Wiltjer because of Kentucky's six incoming McDonald's All-Americans.

Will the Wildcats miss Wiltjer next year? In certain situations, he definitely would have been valuable, but as long as Young and a Harrison twin give Calipari a couple reliable outside shooters, they'll survive. 

It makes more sense to evaluate how this decision affects Kentucky in 2014-15, because if Wiltjer had stayed—which he was considering—the most likely scenario would have been that he red-shirted.

Randle, Lee, Young and Poythress are all candidates to leave after next season; however, it's hard to see all four getting enough minutes and playing a significant enough role to justify leaving. The more likely scenario is that only two leave—DraftExpress.com has both Randle and Poythress as first-round picks in the 2014 mock draft—and the other two become starters. 

If that's the case, then there's no reason for UK fans to worry. It's likely more help will be on the way as well. Calipari only has one commitment in the 2014 class—center Karl Towns—but Kentucky is listed as an option for most of the top 3s and 4s in the class. It's a good bet Wiltjer probably would have been in a similar situation after red-shirting. 

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
John Calipari is at the Nike Global Challenge this week, working on putting together his next star-studded class.

The real concern for Kentucky should be how this is perceived by recruits—or rather, how other coaches use this to recruit against Kentucky. Wiltjer is the second rotation player off last year's team to transfer, joining point guard Ryan Harrow who left for Georgia State. 

It could be framed that even if UK is set at a position—and you're the guy slotted in that spot—Calipari will recruit over you if he can. 

But, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the fact that Calipari left the door open for Wiltjer to return, allowed him to preach his "players first" approach. The message Calipari can sell: He wants what's best for his players, even if it isn't what's best for him. 

This was best for Wiltjer, and that makes it a win-win for all parties involved. 

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