Kris Wilkes focusing on becoming a two-way player: ‘I see myself as a first-round talent’

NBA, Kris Wilkes, NBA Draft Combine, UCLA Basketball, Indiana Mr. Basketball

CHICAGO, Ill. — From ages 11 to 18, Kris Wilkes kept close watch of Paul George, who spent his first seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers — Wilkes’ hometown team. Seven years may not be a long time, but it is for a kid like Wilkes, who is just 19 years old.

George is 6-foot-9, Wilkes is 6-foot-8. Neither were spectacular shooters in college, but they possess great athleticism, a nose for the ball, and a crazy wingspan. Participating in the 2018 NBA Draft Combine this week in Chicago, Wilkes has a measured wingspan of 6’10.25″ and his body fat is just 5.15 percent.

And like George, Wilkes left Indiana last summer. As an 18-year-old, he chose to play 2,000 miles away for coach Steve Alford at UCLA. Homesick is inevitable, but Wilkes believes he is now better prepared because of it.

“At first, but I learned once I got there and living by myself that it got easy,” he told on Thursday. “The first couple of weeks, maybe a month or so, I was a little down being away from my family that I had been with my entire life, family and friends. I learned to adjust to it.

“It helped me mature and grow as a person, and I think I’m becoming more of a man.”

Once at UCLA, Wilkes, who wore No. 13 for a blue and gold team like George, started focusing more on his defensive performance. The competition was much better at the college level, and the PAC-12 All-Freshman Team member noticed that right away. He began taking film study seriously and would track opponents’ tendencies.

Versatility is a buzzword in the NBA, and Wilkes, a 2017 graduate of North Central High School, fits that bill.

“Nowadays everybody’s switching, one through five,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what position you play or anything. It’s getting all-around players. You have to be able to play every position and guard every position. Nowadays, it’s getting more into bigger wings such as myself, and I feel like I fit that role nicely.”

Wilkes has a decision to make: Remain in the draft or pull his name out and return for (likely) one more year at UCLA. He has until May 30th, 10 days after the combine, to decide.

“I see myself as a first-round talent,” he said confidently while fielding questions at a cocktail table. “If the teams don’t think so, I’ll go back to school and I’d kill it, and there wouldn’t be no options about it next year. 

“Honestly I feel like I am (a first-round talent). I’m not getting as much pub or got to showcase as much as I can do. I think if I went back for a year, I would be able to showcase more of that because I would be the guy, I would be that guy to do all of that.”

First-round contracts are guaranteed and knowing that he would be one of the first 30 picks would carry significant weight in his decision. He has not hired an agent and his father has been heavily involved in the process with some input from his mother. Kris looks like an NBA player. He’s got the body, the length, and the focus on defense that teams covet.

Wilkes averaged 13.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game as a freshman for the Bruins. He shot 44.1 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from distance. He reached double figures in all 26 of 33 games.

In addition to getting sized up, with all the measurables taken, the draft combine is more about players getting in front of teams during interviews. Teams provide a list of names to the league and then may be scheduled for interviews with up to 20 players.

Wilkes has met with the Pacers, Phoenix Suns, and Miami Heat. And he has more interviews Friday morning, including one with the Atlanta Hawks.

“It’s my hometown,” Wilkes said of his conversation with the Pacers. “Just talking to them. I knew one of the guys — Jason Buckner, Manager of Scouting Administration — from friends. I knew him before and just talking to him, I got a feel for (everything).”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? We all imitated somebody we admired. For Wilkes, it was PG and even Reggie Miller. “I like to cut a lot, too,” he said, highlighting the Hall of Famers off-ball movement.

Kris Wilkes, UCLA Basketball, 2018 NBA Draft

Kris Wilkes participated in the 2018 NBA Draft Combine in Chicago.

Beyond his own emphasis on defense, Wilkes can handle the ball, push in transition, rebound. When in Indy, Wilkes has worked out with Rob Blackwell of Blackwell Basketball. Out in California, Wilkes is working with Olin Simplis. This process hasn’t been stressful for him.

One thing, though. He wishes that there was more basketball being played at the combine.

“I honestly we would have done more hooping stuff wise here,” he said with a big grin. “Not all these interviews and things like that. I was looking forward to playing everybody. A lot of people aren’t playing and it’s the first day we actually get on the court. Off the court, you have to go work out at night. It’s actually a little less than I expected. I expected a lot more, but it’s been fun. I’m having a great time.”

So now the 2017 Indiana Mr. Basketball has another big decision to make in life. If drafted, here’s what Wilkes says the team is getting:

“They’re getting a big wing. They’re getting that’s learning to love to play defense first and would be a team-oriented guy. Swing the ball around and get it to the open guy. I’m all about winning.”

Wilkes’ high school basketball coach, Doug Mitchell, is a Hall of Famer in Indiana. Most, including myself, don’t remember North Central basketball before Mitchell, who took over in 1994.

Mitchell recently announced that he is retiring — from coaching and teaching.

“Crazy, I shot him a text and congratulated him for that,” Wilkes told “He was a good coach and I’m thankful for the life lessons that he taught me when I was there.”

It was not a huge surprise to Wilkes, who thought Mitchell would retire soon. He thought it would be after his 2017 season. They went 23-5, including 13 consecutive wins to start the year, and had a great season. However, it ended abruptly to Ben Davis in the first round of regionals.

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