By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Washington – Gonzaga University forward Kyle Wiltjer, a finalist for three national player of the year awards, hopes to play in the NBA some day and has a long-term career vision involving the master’s of business administration degree that he began this spring.
Wiltjer and Gonzaga senior guard Kevin Pangos are among 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy and two of 14 finalists for the Oscar Robertson Trophy. Gonzaga is the only school with two finalists for either elite award. On Saturday (March 7), Wiltjer was named one of 15 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award for the nation’s most outstanding college player.
Wiltjer, a 6-foot-10-inch, 240-pound redshirt junior who sat out last season after transferring from the University of Kentucky, where he was the Southeast Conference Sixth Man of the Year, has quickly established himself on the court and in Gonzaga’s classrooms. Wiltjer completed his undergraduate business degree last semester at the start of his breakout season in which he was named the West Coast Conference Newcomer of the Year and All-WCC First Team.
“I’m in my first two classes, they’re night classes,” said Wiltjer, who is making 53 percent of his field goals to lead the Bulldogs with 16.5 points per game, including 24 double-figure scoring efforts and a Gonzaga season high of 45 at Pacific (Feb. 19.) for which he was named both the Naismith Trophy and Oscar Robertson Trophy national player of the week (the latter honor for the second time this season).
“I’ve got one more year left of basketball, so that will give me one more year to finish up my master’s,” Wiltjer said, adding that he loves Gonzaga’s approach to education that places a premium on outstanding teaching, one-to-one access to faculty, and small class sizes to foster an exceptional learning community.
“I’ve only been here a year but already I feel like I know a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a community here, if you’re ever struggling in a class or you need help, you can go in and see your professors and they’re always welcoming with open arms. That’s really helped me to be able to kind of get the most out of some classes and learn a little extra.”
Featured on the regional cover of the March 2 issue of Sports Illustrated, Wiltjer hopes to play professionally for many years but realizes there are no guarantees.
“You never know how many years you can play, so having that master’s to fall back on would be really key,” he said. “I would love to work for an athletic brand like a Nike or Jordan – something to do with basketball or sports in the business world.”
Enjoys Serving Others
In a world fraught and fractured by self-interest, Wiltjer also values Gonzaga’s Jesuit-based ethos that seeks to inspire students to become people for others. Since being introduced to service at Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon, Wiltjer has discovered the joy it brings him and others.
After doing the required service as a high school freshman and sophomore, Wiltjer was especially inspired as a junior by serving as a camp counselor for foster children being reunited with their siblings.
“Ever since then, just seeing the lives I could touch doing that, it has transferred over here to Gonzaga,” he said. “As a team we’ve gone and done hospital visits and gone to community centers. It’s crazy how you can go somewhere and with just your presence, people love it. Just knowing that I can help someone’s day or put a smile on a kid’s face means a lot to me. It’s an awesome feeling.”
Mike Roden, an assistant athletic director at Gonzaga, said Wiltjer is one of many Gonzaga student-athletes involved in community service.
“Kyle is the epitome of a Gonzaga student-athlete. Not only is he a standout on the basketball court, but Kyle is a dedicated student who embraces the mission of service to others,” Roden said. “Kyle’s influence on his peers has helped make this year one of our most successful in regards to community involvement and service.”
Earlier this month, Wiltjer and other Zags visited local elementary schools to highlight the importance of starting the day with a complete breakfast as part of National Breakfast Week sponsored by the School Nutrition Association.
Demands of D-I Athletics
Success for a Division I student-athlete requires tremendous discipline, hard work and sacrifice. At Gonzaga, Wiltjer said it’s a challenge balancing the rigors of academics and basketball.
“It’s very difficult. Sometimes, people don’t realize how hard it is,” he said, adding that Gonzaga’s academic support services personnel help keep the student-athletes focused.
His best advice to incoming Gonzaga student-athletes?
“Time management is the most important factor as a college athlete. Don’t leave things to the last minute,” he said. “Sometimes you get home and all you want to do is sleep but you know that if you do that you’re going to put yourself in a worse situation.”
The No. 2-seed Gonzaga (32-2) take on No. 15-seed North Dakota State (23-9) at 7 p.m., Friday in a second-round NCAA Tournament game at KeyArena in Seattle. This marks Gonzaga’s 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament Appearance and 18th overall. Wiltjer and the Zags are aiming for a deep run.
“I’m just really focused on winning right now,” Wiltjer said. “We have the potential to go really far so that’s our primary focus.”