Kyle Wilson’s unorthodox route from the O.C. to the Army

NCAA BASKETBALL:  NOV 30 Army at Duke

NCAA BASKETBALL:  NOV 30 Army at Duke

Five years ago, if you had told Kyle Wilson that he’d be where he is now – a Division I basketball player, leading his conference and ranking 25th in the nation in scoring while enduring frigid winters along the Hudson River, AND a cadet at the United States Army academy, only a year away from being commissioned as a second lieutenant – he would have thought you were crazy.

“Or maybe that you’d been out in the sun for far too long or something,” says the 6-foot-4-inch Mission Viejo, California native.

Back then, Wilson was a high school junior and a SoCal kid through and through, living a laid-back “OC” lifestyle revolving around the sun and the surf.

“I didn’t even know where or what West Point was before they called me,” Wilson laughs about his interest in attending a service academy at the time. “I was an Orange County kid and that was my identity.”

Wilson came of age in Mission Viejo, an affluent, picturesque community that sits in the valley of the Saddleback Mountains in southern Orange County, living with his mother, Nicole Klevens.

“She was definitely always my biggest supporter and fan,” says Wilson, who even over the phone conveys a carefree vibe and laid-back mentality that seem at complete odds with the regimented, rigorous lifestyle of a future military officer.

From a young age, Wilson gravitated towards the sport of basketball, but he was a late bloomer with an “awkward game” who never quite “looked the part,” as Army head coach Zach Spiker says.

“I think Kyle was always hurt by the fact that coaches are looking for players who fit into a nice little package of ‘he’s a shooting guard, or a power forward, or he’s an athlete, he’s a rebounder,’ and Kyle was always unorthodox,” explains Spiker.

“When you see a guy who’s a superior athlete, who’s extremely quick, who’s really big and strong, you show that to your guys and they go ‘wow, he’s really good,’” echoes University of Maine head coach Bob Walsh, who had to game plan around Wilson earlier this year. “He’s really, really crafty, smart, really, really good and hard to guard because he does so many things well. But because he doesn’t have those physical attributes that jump out at you, a lot of people overlooked him.”

Wilson was a three-time letter winner at Trabuco Hills High School, captaining the team and averaging 17.4 points and 2.1 rebounds per game as a senior, but had no Division I scholarship offers heading into his senior year.

“I didn’t have any Division I offers at the time,” says Wilson. “I was looking at a couple of local Division III schools.”

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Then his phone rang, and on the other end was Spiker.

“He definitely had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but he was also completely no-nonsense,” says Wilson, adding with a laugh, “I would definitely say we had different personalities.”

Wilson was ecstatic to hear that a Division I school was interested in him, until he learned where, and what, West Point was, and the minimum five-year active duty commitment in the armed forces.

“I always wanted to play college basketball,” explains Wilson. “I never thought about West Point or the Army until they called me the summer going into my senior year, and then even after they called me I still didn’t really consider it.

“I definitely had hesitations about the commitment,” he says.

But Spiker was persistent.

“Relentless,” corrects Wilson, and with no other Division I offers materializing, the shooting guard agreed to take an official visit.

“They talked me into coming here for a recruiting visit and I ended up coming and I loved it, and from then on I knew this was where I wanted to go,” he says.

But Wilson still had to convince his mother and extended family and friends that West Point was the right place to go.

“She [my mom] definitely wasn’t thrilled about the thought of me serving in the Army, and maybe getting hurt or killed,” he says. “They realized they wanted me to go wherever makes me the happiest. It’s not like you’re just going to war. They realized all the great opportunities within the school and after.”

Before attending West Point, Wilson did a year at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School (USMAPS), as do most recruited Army athletes. His time at USMAPS served as a crash course in military life.

“I really had no idea what it was going to be like,” he says. “And so getting here and experiencing it was definitely a shock. But the regimented days makes it pretty easy, because you know exactly what you need to do at all times.”

From Day 1 of his first freshman practice, Wilson entrenched himself as a cornerstone of Army’s basketball team, starting 12 of 30 games as a freshman while leading all Patriot League rookies in scoring at 13 points per game. As a sophomore Wilson led the Patriot League in scoring at 18.4 points per game while shooting 44.3 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from behind the arc and 79.1 percent from the line.

“Who?” deadpans Spiker when asked about Wilson’s impact on the team. “Oh, yeah, that Wilson kid; he’s pretty decent,” he laughs, before getting serious. “Kyle has been a tremendous player. Obviously he fills up the score column, but he’s one of our best defenders, he’s incredibly tough, and he’s a big time team player.”

According to Walsh, the very reasons that made teams pass on Wilson – his lack of a “true” position, average athleticism, and an awkward game that sees him often banking in running floaters while shooting off of what most would consider the wrong foot – also makes him incredibly hard to scout and guard.

“He’s really hard to prepare for because he does not come across as a high-level, wow, what’s-he-doing-at-Army type kid until you watch him play a lot,” says Walsh.

“He’s so crafty and so smart and just above average at everything he does. Obviously he’s a great shooter, but you watch their USC game and he wasn’t shooting the ball well and he just made a commitment to getting in to the gaps and he hut a couple of off-balance runners and floaters and he got to the rim.”

The USC game, of course, was Wilson’s home coming earlier this year at Galen Center. Playing against a BCS program, with more than 120 friends and family in the seats, Wilson went off, scoring 30 points (one shy of the career high he set two games earlier at Delaware) while willing the Black Knights to an 85-77 overtime upset.

“That was a pretty great experience to get to play back home in front of my family and friends and everyone, and I played OK too which was good,” he says in a huge understatement.

For his own part, Wilson describes himself as “laid back” on the court, letting the game come to him and always trying to stay calm, cool and collected, no matter what. But he admits that the faith the Army coaching staff put in him to give him his only Division I offer, and the doubts the rest of college hoops had in his abilities, serves as a daily motivation.

“The fact the coaching staff here believed in me definitely gives me a lot of confidence,” he says, “and I definitely go out every night to try and prove every team that took a pass on me wrong.”

That motivation has been working, as Wilson was named one of 40 players placed on the Lou Henson award Mid-Season Watch List, for the award which recognizes the best “Mid-Major” player in the country.

Wilson’s goal for the season and his career is to lead Army to the first NCAA Tournament in program history. Wilson has the talent to play professional basketball somewhere after graduation – if not in the NBA than abroad – a lifelong dream of his, but due to the mandatory active duty commitment would make reaching that dream a long shot at best.

“It’s definitely something I would want to do if given the opportunity,” he says of playing professional ball. “Even with the commitment, there’s still opportunities to play within the Army. We’ve had guys who have graduated in previous years who play on the All-Army team. And then after my commitment is up, I’ll see if I have any options to play.”

But Wilson says he has no regrets about his decision to attend West Point. In fact, it’s quite the contrary.

“Attending here definitely took a strange series of events, and had I had other options I might not have ever wound up here,” he says, “but it was definitely the best decision of my life. I’m going to come away with a guaranteed job and a degree from one of the best colleges on the planet for free – it’s hard to argue with that.”

NCAA BASKETBALL:  NOV 30 Army at Duke

Photographs courtesy of Army Athletics.