The first time he suffered through the drill last winter, Kyle Wiltjer thought it was needlessly sadistic.
Gonzaga strength coach Travis Knight positioned Wiltjer directly in front of him and hurled a 20-pound leather medicine ball over and over at the 6-foot-10 forward's chest. Wiltjer had to unflinchingly absorb each blow, let the ball fall to the ground and steady himself quickly enough to scoop it up before it bounced a second time.
More from Yahoo Sports' 2014-15 Season Preview:
• Oct. 3: Eight key questions as practice begins
• Oct. 6: Preseason Top 25 with best-case and worst-case scenarios
• Oct. 7: WCC Preview: Newcomers may tighten Gonzaga's grip on the league
• Oct. 8: To become a more well-rounded player, Kyle Wiltjer changed his body and his game
"I didn't think it would help at all at first," Wiltjer said. "I didn't really see how it would translate. But after a while, I realized I was becoming much more comfortable with contact in the post. It helped me a lot on box-outs and holding my position on defense."
Simulating the bruising physicality of the paint with blows from a medicine ball is one small part of Wiltjer's efforts to reinvent himself while sitting out last season following his transfer from Kentucky to Gonzaga.
No longer is Wiltjer content to be known as a skilled but soft spot-up shooter more comfortable floating to the perimeter than fighting for position near the rim. The former prized recruit intends to use his fresh start at Gonzaga to shed the label of defensive liability and reemerge as a more well-rounded scoring threat versatile enough to rain down threes, aggressively attack the rim or score with his back to the basket.
To accomplish those goals this season, Wiltjer first had to commit to changing his body.
He began working out with Knight twice a day soon after arriving at Gonzaga 13 months ago, focusing on everything from correcting his awkward running style, to improving his mobility and lateral quickness, to adding lean muscle mass so he wouldn't be pushed around in the paint so easily. Yoga sessions and a healthier diet have also helped Wiltjer gradually move more freely, increase his bench press and vertical leap and develop superior strength and lateral quickness.
"His movement when he first got here was painful," Knight said. "Nothing was easy or smooth or natural. Everything seemed to be held back, whether his knees bothered him or his hips or his back. He moved like a guy that was a lot older than he was. To see him go from that to now where he's making hard cuts to the basket and finishing with ease with a dunk on every play, that's his biggest improvement. He just looks so smooth, natural and effortless now."
If Wiltjer's hard work enables him to become a more multidimensional player this season, that would be a huge boost for a Gonzaga program with Final Four aspirations.
Wiltjer is likely to start at power forward, giving the Zags an inside-outside threat to pair with mammoth 7-footer Przemek Karnowski in their frontcourt. The Gonzaga staff wants Wiltjer to embrace his ability to create mismatches, whether it's using his newfound strength to overpower a smaller defender on the low block or exploiting a lumbering big man's inability to chase him around screens or stay in front of him off the dribble.
"It's easy for someone to say they're going to be motivated during a redshirt year, but Kyle really followed through," Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. "Kyle is extremely motivated. He put in a ton of time, whether it's doubling up with our strength coach or coming in on his own at night and shooting or grabbing coaches for individual workouts. He really took advantage of his redshirt. Now he's set up to have a great finish to his college basketball career here at Gonzaga."
Coming to Gonzaga wasn't an easy decision for Wiltjer because it pained him to leave Kentucky.
Wiltjer served as a shooter off the bench for Kentucky's 2012 national championship team as a freshman and received the SEC's sixth man of the year award as a sophomore after averaging 10.2 points and 4.2 rebounds. He also had such a good relationship with coach John Calipari and many of his teammates that they still keep in contact regularly to this day.
What made Wiltjer ponder a transfer after the 2012-13 season was the fear that he would never reach his full potential if he remained with the Wildcats. Not only was his playing time likely to diminish the following season with another decorated freshman class set to arrive, he and his family also feared he wouldn't receive the specialized strength training he needed at Kentucky in order to revamp his body and revive his hopes of playing in the NBA someday.
"It's a very tough thing to give up Kentucky because he had a great experience there," Greg Wiltjer, Kyle's father, said. "But he wanted the best shot of playing at the next level and at the end of his sophomore season, people in high-level basketball told him, 'Your biggest challenge is your body.' He felt he couldn't fix that at Kentucky, so we started thinking about who had the best situation?"
One of the first options to emerge was Gonzaga, which was only an hour flight from Wiltjer's family home in Portland, had heavily recruited him in high school and had a style of play that fit his strengths. The Zags became even more appealing to Wiltjer when he developed tremendous on-court chemistry with point guard Kevin Pangos while playing for the Canadian National Team and when he learned more about the story of 2012-13 All-American Kelly Olynyk.
A finesse-oriented big man who preferred the perimeter to the paint during his first two years at Gonzaga, Olynyk spent a redshirt season working with Knight, building muscle and improving his interior game. The payoff for Olynyk was a sudden ascent from overlooked backup to college basketball's most improved player to 2013 NBA first-round draft pick — exactly the sort of path Wiltjer would love to follow.
"Both of us being involved in the Canadian program, I saw his improvement up close," Wiltjer said. "He looked so much better and that was definitely intriguing to me. I actually talked to him about redshirting at Gonzaga and all he had was good things to say. He said, 'It was a really tough year, and you have to know what you're getting yourself into but if you go through with it, make sure you utilize every day.'
Once Wiltjer stopped wavering and decided to go through with the transfer, he quickly learned Olynyk wasn't kidding about the challenges of working daily with Knight. The Gonzaga strength coach identified every one of Wiltjer's weaknesses on film even before he arrived on campus and tore into the Kentucky transfer when he wasn't initially as self-motivated as Olynyk had been.
"Kyle's work ethic at the beginning wasn't at the level that a transformation like this requires," Knight said. "We knew we had to increase that. That was a big focal point. We went from working out every day to working out twice a day. We understood, hey, this isn't happening fast enough or to the level we need, so what are we going to do about it? There was definitely a natural evolution. Once he started seeing changes, it was easier to convince him to do more."
The first big change was simply that Wiltjer began to move more freely and less rigidly. Improvements in his vertical leap, his bench-press scores and his body fat index soon followed. He still doesn't show much conspicuous muscle gain, but those who have seen him play insist the difference the skill and strength training has made is obvious.
"I think you're just going to see a more well-rounded kid," said Greg Wiltjer, himself a former center for the Canadian national team. "I've been in the gym with him a little bit, and I definitely think he's stronger, he's wiser, he's more efficient and he defends better. And I think he's going to be more durable. He'll be able to get deeper into the season with less fatigue and less injury."
Having gone 18 months without playing in a meaningful game as a result of his transfer, Wiltjer is just excited for the season to finally start next month.
At long last, his game days won't consist of more medicine balls to the chest. Now he can finally unveil Kyle Wiltjer 2.0 — a superior all-around player who can still light it up from the perimeter when he needs to but can also defend, rebound and score with his back to the basket.
"I feel like I've improved a lot this past year and I also think the team around me is even better than I expected," Wiltjer said. "It's very exciting. I can't wait to get back on the floor."
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