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By LARRY VAUGHT
Finally signing his national letter of intent with Kentucky was a “big relief” Wednesday for 6-9 forward Derek Willis of Bullitt East.
“It has been about seven months since I gave my verbal commitment,” said Willis, who was the first player to commit to UK’s 2013 recruiting class. “But signing is a totally different things. For the commitment, I was nervous and really stressing out. This was not the same. It was a lot more enjoyable.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari likes the versatility Willis has and Bullitt East coach Troy Barr says Calipari saw some of the same skills and potential in Willis that he did in UK sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. Willis worked over the summer to add weight and picked up about 15 pounds, something he knows will help him this season.
Willis originally gave a verbal commitment to Purdue but changed his mind and re-opened his recruitment. He eventually picked UK over Purdue and Louisville.
“The past two years since I started being heavily recruited, things have really changed for me,” Willis said. “When Kentucky hit me and then I committed to Kentucky, I really got noticed even more. It’s crazy what you go through in recruiting. People have no idea.
“Your whole life changes. You have to watch what you do and say, even on Twitter. It’s a small price to pay for the success I’ve had and expect to keep having, but it can be kind of overwhelming at times.”
Barr has been perplexed about the way Willis’ national recruiting stock has dropped in some rankings and that he has been criticized for his all-around play even though the coach raves about his outside shooting and ballhandling ability.
“I think I am one of the most criticized players in Kentucky high school sports right now. Everybody wants me to be great all the time,” Willis said. “But I’m a better player now than I was two years ago or even last year. I’ve got stronger and have a different mentality. As a sophomore, I liked to shoot and score more. Now I am mentally tougher and have more of a killer instinct to go harder, even in practice, to try and improve every day.”
He appreciates that UK coach John Calipari and assistant Orlando Antigua never wavered in their support of him even as UK added high profile recruits to the 2013 class.
“When I committed, I was ranked higher than I am now,” Willis said. “When I feel off, coach Calipari told me he was not recruiting me because of where I was ranked. He was recruiting me because of my potential and talent. It’s the same with high profile guys he said. I am not as hyped as some other players, but he told me not to worry about any of that.”
Willis will get to see two of his future teammates, twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, play in the Marshall County Hoop Fest Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Benton because Bullitt East is also playing in the event. Kentucky recruiting targets Andrew Wiggins of Huntington (W.Va.) Prep and Cliff Alexander of Chicago, a junior, will also be playing.
“I don’t think people will be coming to see me with those guys all playing,” Willis laughed and said. “The twins and Wiggins will be the main attractions. But we are coming down a day early since we don’t play until Saturday and I will get to watch them play. But for me, it will also be a good way to showcase what I can do, and my team can do, for people who may not get to see me play any other time.”