By LARRY VAUGHT
Not only did he score 10 of Kentucky’s first 14 points, but he did it a variety of ways including a baseline fallaway jumper and a drive down the center of the lane.
Say hello to the new and better Derek Willis.
He finished with 15 points, five rebounds, three blocks, one assist and one steal in 31 minutes in UK’s 87-64 victory Friday night over Stephen F. Austin.
However, Willis was more worried about some defensive rebounds he did not get.
“I think there were about three or four possessions, probably even more, where I didn’t come up with some defensive rebounds. I let my man get by me. I wasn’t too happy about that. Some defensive lapses. My guy just drove me, but it’s the first game of the year, season opener. So just trying to work out what we can and learn from our mistakes,” Willis, a senior, said.
He was 5-for-7 from the field and 4-for-4 at the foul line.
“That’s all good, but that stuff works itself out. I think where we need to get it done is on the defensive end. I think we executed most of our plays for the most part, but just communication and the defensive lapses. We’ll work on that and keep moving forward,” Willis said.
That’s the new and improved Willis. That’s the Willis that recently reminded coach John Calipari of a wrinkle in UK’s zone offense from last year that the coach had forgot.
He understands if he makes a shot but doesn’t get a rebound or gets beat on defense it merely cancels what he did on offense.
“Coming up with rebounds, that’s an extra possession for the team, which means it’s an extra two or three points for them potentially. So to me it’s almost like I scored five points instead of (15). I just need to be a more efficient rebounder and definitely key in on that for sure,” Willis said.
Freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox, who had 12 assists to set a new school record for most assists in a UK debut, liked how Willis started the game.
“It’s our first game ever in college, me, Malik and the rest of the freshmen. Just came out and showed what a senior is supposed to do. He put up points, he put up points in bunches really quick. He got comfortable so that allowed us to get comfortable,” Fox said.
Willis said his intention was not to set the tone for the freshmen. Instead, he was just trying to get in the flow of the game.
“I was really focused on rebounding and playing with a lot of energy defensively, getting out, trying to get deflections and do whatever. So I was pretty keyed in on that. I would have liked to have come up with a little more rebounding,” Willis said.
Again, rebounding and defense. Willis kept managing to put the emphasis back on that.
Perhaps that’s why Calipari said after the game he was proud of Willis for many reasons.
” Like he’s the first one at practice, and he’s the last one to leave. That went from, I blow the whistle, we are done with practice, and he would run to the door. And I would say, ‘Derek, can I talk to you guys first before you leave?’ And the last one — now, he’s on a mission. And it’s just, look, you build your own self esteem, your own confidence, it’s not what I say and what I do on the sideline, it is about you,” Calipari said.
“Derek’s showing great maturity and it’s nice to have him and Dom to be able to say, look, we got two seniors that are in this rotation that are going to be able to give you quality minutes.”
Willis agrees that his mindset has changed dramatically from last season.
“I feel like deep down I did know I could play, but it was a matter of getting out there and doing it. I feel like now I’m doing it in practice and then coming out and transitioning with the game. It’s been good for me. It’s just something I want to expand on, being a more complete, multi-dimensional player,” Willis said.