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August 11, 2010

Hoopsters find passports to success

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HILLSBORO, Ore. - Kyle Wiltjer of Portland (Ore.) Jesuit had a choice to make. He could sign the stack of documents in front of him and officially gain Canadian citizenship. Or he could simply maintain his American birthright and leave his basketball aspirations up to hard work, talent and chance.

Pen met paper.

That was in 2008. Now the 6-foot-9 forward is simultaneously both one of Canada's most promising prospects at last weekend's Nike Global Challenge and one of the most sought-after U.S. recruits, thanks in part to that decision.

"It was a huge decision and I thought about it long and hard," Wiltjer said. "As much I would have loved to play for the U.S., I felt like sticking with Canada gave me the best opportunity."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Wiltjer's father, Greg - a British Columbia product, born in the Yukon - played for Canada in the 1984 Olympics or that his older sister, Jordan, is currently a member of the Canadian women's national team.

"I didn't want to break that tradition," Wiltjer said. "But also one of my goals in the long run is to play in the Olympics and I think my best shot is going the Canada route."

Provincial wisdom suggests that all roads to basketball glory begin and end in the United States. After all, for every Brandon Jennings there's a Jeremy Tyler.

But two of the best players at the Nike Global Challenge - Wiltjer (Rivals No. 22) and All-Asia's Bobby Parks Jr. (No. 106) - have succeeded in raising both their profiles and their games by swimming against the current and going international.

"It's just been a great opportunity for me," Wiltjer says. "Playing internationally has given me a different kind of exposure that I wouldn't have had otherwise."

Parks Jr., who played last season at Memphis (Tenn.) Melrose, agreed his Filipino heritage has helped him.

"It's a chance for me to play with and against better players," Parks Jr. said. "They're bigger than me, they're stronger than me and they're more experienced. So playing with them will help teach me how to improve my game and my basketball IQ."

On the surface, neither Wiltjer's gangly frame nor less-than-fluid mobility appears particularly imposing. Despite that, two years ago he was getting strong looks from home-grown programs like Oregon and Oregon State. Now, though, he has the likes of Kentucky and Kansas clamoring for his services.

Wiltjer averaged a decent, though far from awe-inspiring, 9.7 points a game at the 2009 Nike Global Challenge. This year, he earned All-Tournament Team honors after averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds.

In between, Wiltjer helped Jesuit to its second-straight Oregon Class 6A title and hit the 3-pointer that gave Team Canada the bronze medal at the FIBA-Americas U18 Championship for Men (where he averaged 19.4 points a game) in June. Some of that progression can be credited to natural maturation, but not all.

"I think I'm at a different level after playing international basketball," Wiltjer said. "It's just been a great opportunity for me and I think it's gotten me tougher and made my overall game a lot better. It's a higher level of basketball in a lot of ways."

A similar opportunity has drawn Parks Jr. - the son of former Memphis standout (and star in the Filipino professional league) Bobby Parks - to forego his senior year at Melrose in favor of returning to the Philippines (where he previously lived for 13 years) to play for the national team.

Three years at Melrose High has been enough to earn Parks Jr. strong interest from programs such as Memphis, Arkansas and New Mexico, but his decision to play for the Philippines - and the All-Asia team at the NGC - is a reflection of not being satisfied with being yet another three-star recruit in a galaxy full of them.

"It's just opening up my options," Parks Jr. said. "There are pros and cons on either side but there's a lot of talent here in the States, and this just gives me the opportunity to be able to really develop and showcase my talent."

All over the world.



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