By LARRY VAUGHT
During a conversation with Kentucky freshman Derek Willis during the NCAA Tournament, he said “without a doubt for sure” when asked if he had become a better player during his first year with UK. He also stressed he already knew what he had to do during the offseason.
“I am just going to dedicate myself more to basketball. I have been the kind of kid that in season I would work really hard and do what I could, but in the offseason I would just want to hang out with my friends because during the basketball season you don’t get to do stuff like that. I just have to dedicate myself if I want to play more,” said Willis.
An honest answer from a player who played in just 39 minutes in 14 games last season when he had 16 points and eight rebounds for the season — less than he had in most games during his prep career at Bullitt East.
“It has just been a learning experience definitely,” Wilis said. “But I am enjoying all the experiences I can with the trips and stuff and practice. I have learned everything from concentration to how to defend someone to how to play offensively. Just a lot of stuff.
“I probably didn’t play more because of the way my body is built. I am not the strongest player on the team without question. That is something I am going to be working on and eventually it will happen.”
Yet some are now speculating that Willis is unhappy with his spot at Kentucky now that Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison have all decided to stay at UK another season rather than leave for the NBA. Plus, UK has four more McDonald’s All-Americans — Karl Towns Jr., Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis — in its signing class.
Reports surfaced that Willis was contemplating a transfer — a rumor that Troy Barr, Willis’ high school coach, vehemently denied Sunday.
“I have been in contact with Derek and talked to his dad several times. The only thing they have expressed to me is that he is committed to staying at Kentucky,” Barr said. “People are assuming that because other people stayed it will make Derek rethink staying at UK. It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to know there is a lot of talent there and maybe a kid like Derek could get frustrated and leave. In this day and age assumption can turn to rumor and rumor turn to fact pretty quick on social media. It gets crazy.
“Derek has met with Cal (John Calipari). He understands where he fits in. He has not told me word for word how the conversation went, but everything Derek told me and others have told me is there will be an opportunity to get minutes at the 3 (small forward) if he develops. They feel like a year of experience could help him be part of the playing rotation.”
Barr says Willis “seems motivated” to work harder and get stronger.
“The biggest thing has always been his diet. He likes to eat candy and has never dedicated himself to gaining weight,” Barr said.
Barr watched UK practice last season and noted when Willis was on the floor, he “fit in” with the top players.
“It’s not like he looked like a walk-on. He is 6-9 with skills. He can shoot and score,” Barr said. “The thing that stood out is that he did not yet have the body weight to hang with those guys. I think he feels improved as a player and knows he has to add weight and strength. He knows he can shoot, pass, handle the ball. But to play in the SEC and play the schedule UK does, you’ve got to be physical.
“He knows all that and he wants to work to get better and show he can get on the floor and play at Kentucky. Nothing about being there has surprised him. He knew the talent there and he believes he can play with that talent and I know he can. So people can speculate all they want, but from all he’s told me he’s going to be back at Kentucky.”