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Stay or Go? The Lowdown on Kyle Wiltjer’s Transfer

The recent announcement by Kyle Wiltjer of his intent to transfer from Kentucky to another program boils down to one thing: playing time.

Looking at the 2013-14 Kentucky roster, Wiltjer had to have been thinking that minutes would be scarce. How do you find time for a slow-footed, 6-10 spot shooting specialist in a frontcourt mix that includes sophomores Willie Caulie-Stein and Alex Poythress with incoming prep studs Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee.

Even by very, very generous standards, Wiltjer was facing a drastic cutback in minutes.

Perhaps more problematic than getting pushed out of his spot by newcomers, recent news indicates that Coach Calipari and the staff have been disappointed with Wiltjer’s work ethic and commitment to getting stronger and better. The TV evidence tends to corroborate this theory.

Wiltjer possesses great hand-eye coordination, natural ball skills and a pretty shooting stroke. He has also shown he can find a way to score with his back to the basket. He provided unquestionable leadership and scoring punch at times in his first two years at UK.

But he is a defensive liability and his offensive prowess is limited by stronger defenders, of which the SEC has in spades. Moreover, he lacks the quickness and leaping ability that are the prized assets of Calipari’s dribble drive offense.

Meanwhile, the incoming class is one of the most physically gifted groups of basketball specimens that college hoops has ever seen….no exaggeration.

When your best attribute is neutralized or severely hampered by the system you play and the personnel you play with, you have to have something to fall back if you want to stay on the court—defense, rebounding, physicality, etc.

Kyle has no “fallback” option in his game. And so the transfer talk.

But let’s face the reality here. Despite the shortcomings stated above, Wiltjer is a talented big man with a chance to play at the next level. True, that chance has diminished in the past few years as Wiltjer has been exposed to elite caliber athletes. But hope is not lost.

Wiltjer just needs time. He needs to get serious about how much he is willing to work and dedicate to his craft. Kentucky basketball is now a program so elevated in status that wonderful players like Wiltjer are faced with what can only be described as a daunting reality: becoming a pro basketball player is extremely difficult and only occurs in rare situations.

Kentucky’s extraordinary success in producing successful pros is an incredible testament to Cal’s accomplishments as a talent scout, coach and developer. But the school is also now a stud factory that quickly separates dreams from reality. For all the John Wall and Anthony Davis types, there have also been a few who were cut from the chaff—Stacey Poole, Ryan Harrow, Darnell Dodson, etc.

An NBA career isn’t automatic just by inking the blue and white signing letter. But it is a lot more likely. And that is why we think Wiltjer’s best bet continues to be with the University of Kentucky.

In the past few days, news has emerged that Wiltjer may stick around Lexington and not transfer after all. If he elects to do so, then a redshirt would be a smart move.

Mid-career redshirts are rare (and even rarer these days) but they aren’t unprecedented, and they certainly aren’t without success stories. In fact, the BBL encourages Kyle to put in a call to ex-Wildcat great Jeff Sheppard.

Sheppard redshirted before what would have been his senior year in 1996-97, seeing the logjam at his position around that time (Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, Allen Edwards). He returned the following year and promptly led the Cats to the 98 national title, where he was named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

In any scenario, whether at UK or elsewhere, Wiltjer will be sitting out next season to work on his body. Doing so at Kentucky, where he can come back fitter, stronger and chock full of high-level collegiate experience—from the highs of winning a title to the lows of being an upperclassmen pushed out of playing time by freshmen—is the surest way to earn himself a spot on an NBA roster.

After all, there is simply no better opportunity for the combination of media attention and on-court success.

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