Which former Gonzaga player’s career do you think Kyle Wiltjer has the best chance of duplicating?
SPOKANE, Wash. -- The Boston Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk transformed from shapeless drifter, to chiseled force, to All-American in his time with Gonzaga University’s basketball program.
Gonzaga strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight became a prominent supporting character in Olynyk's popular story, largely due to all the credit given to him by the GU star.
“I was so happy for him. We knew how much work he put in. We knew how much, before the media came into the picture, how much he had done and what he had gone through,” said Knight. “It was gracious that he was telling people that our work together did a lot of it, because I didn't lift any weights. “
What Knight did do, however, was carry out his vision for Olynyk.
“He had spent two years with me doing traditional stuff and I knew another year of that same thing wasn't gonna work, so we really had nowhere else go but be non-traditional,” Knight said.
That tailored approach, and the dramatic outcome, had an unintended result.
“Seeing him do it was very influential on my decision to come here,” said Kyle Wiltjer.
Kyle Wiltjer was a high school All-American out of Portland who opted for John Calipari and Kentucky over - among others - Gonzaga. Wiltjer won a national championship with the wildcats but wasn't reaching his potential. After two seasons he said he, like Olynyk, realized “a year off would be really beneficial.”
On the heels of Olynyk's big year, the Zags were again on Welter’s radar. In July, when he announced his decision, there was no mistaking the motivation.
“When you see a place and they have a track record of redshirting guys and developing them as players, it was really enticing to me, “said Wiltjer.
Travis Knight was part of the draw, and Wiltjer wasn't the only one looking forward to the partnership.
"I changed my training with Kelly [Olynyk] so much it was exciting to try and do it with another individual like Kyle,” said Knight. “You don't get a situation like that very often, so when it popped its head up it seemed like it was meant to be.”
In late August, not long after the 6-foot-10-inch forward arrived on campus, the duo went to work on building a better Zag.
“As soon as you walk through that door all you see is someone's weaknesses,” Knight explained. “The first two months were really overwhelming. There were so many things that he wasn't doing right and needed to get better at.”
“We're kind of experimenting [with] things,” said Wiltjer. “Some things work, some things don't.”
Five months in, work is the constant. Everything else, from targets to tactics, depends on the day.
“It's extremely unique,” said Wiltjer, a player with previous trainers and two seasons at one of the nation's most prestigious college basketball programs. “I come every day and he always finds something new to throw at you.”
That is quite literally the case in one of Knight’s regular drills with Wiltjer. It involves a medicine ball to the chest, and stems from Knight’s days as a third baseman at GU. Instead of taking a baseball to his body, scooping it off the dirt and throwing to first, Wiltjer's doesn't count a rep until he deflects the weighted ball and catches it off the bounce. Knight believes in engaging the mind and body, and all of his drills are designed for a specific purpose or weakness.
In February, Knight had eight more months to finish his latest project.
“I haven't even been here that long and it feels like I've progressed already a lot,” Wiltjer said.
The precedent was set by the unforeseeable transformation of Kelly Olynyk. The hope is this time, the end result is far more predictable.