By LARRY VAUGHT
The more Troy Barr watches Derek Willis on and off the court, the more the Bullitt East coach senses how much more comfortable is star player is with everything now.
The 6-9 Willis signed with Kentucky in November and has been heavily scrutinized. He originally committed to Purdue, changed his mind and then picked UK over Louisville and Purdue. His recruiting ranked dropped last summer, but UK coach John Calipari never wavered in his belief that Willis’ versatility would be a perfect fit at UK.
Then Willis opened the season by getting ejected from a game and having to miss Bullitt East’s appearance in the Marshall County Hoop Fest.
But now he’s showing more and more why Calipari wants him at Kentucky.
In the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions in Springfield, Mo., last week, he averaged 21 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and three assists per game in a star-studded tourney that also included future UK teammate Dakari Johnson, a top 20 player. Bullitt East played Little Rock Hall, which featured 6-10 Arkansas commit Bobby Portis, in the second round and won behind 19 points, nine rebounds, six assists and six blocks from Willis. In the third-place game, Willis had 27 points in a 59-55 overtime win over Springfield Hillcrest.
“Derek really did play well out there. He looked comfortable in that big-time environment. They only invite eight teams from across the United States to play because they want the best talent and teams they can get,” said Barr. “We felt blessed to be there and Derek did great. There were a lot of UK fans there and he signed a lot of autographs and took a lot of pictures, so it was all good.
“He still picks and chooses his time to be assertive, but when he is assertive we are a different team and he’s a different player. We are gradually getting better as he sees what more he can do for our team.”
Barr looks back now and thinks Willis may have needed some time to adjust to the spotlight that came with being a UK signee.
“We did seven or eight interviews the first day out there, including CBS Sports, and I noticed how much more comfortable hew as. He talks more now and elaborates more with his answers and seems to be enjoying the process more,” Barr said. “In turn, that seems to be helping his play. He is just more comfortable with everything on and off the court and is now enjoying his senior year.
“He’s a better, stronger player this year. He is handling the physical nature of the game better. He is playing out on the floor more. Last year we kept him inside all the time. Now we have several guys that can post up inside and that allows Derek to play point guard some and on the wing. That’s more of his natural position and where he is more comfortable.”
Barr felt Willis easily outplayed Portis, a top 20 ranked player.
“They have won the last three Arkansas state championships and I felt Derek was equal to or better than Portis,” Barr said. “Derek outplayed him and we won by 10 points. That showed me Derek is right there with all those highly ranked players.”
Johnson averaged 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per game to get his team to the championship game. Barr said Willis and Johnson got to talk several times during the tournament.
“He is a big body, but he is not Demarcus Cousins, Nerlens Noel or Anthony Davis. He’s not as versatile as some of the bigs Calipari has had and he’s not really a shot blocker. But he’s a great player,” Barr said.
Willis plans to play in the Derby Festival Classic April 19 in Louisville — Barr will also coach in the game. After that, Barr is not sure what other postseason plans Willis might have.
“He is waiting to see what else opens as far as other all-star games,” Barr said. “Right now he’s just focused on helping us get better and get ready for what we hope will be a good tournament run.”