By Keith Taylor, The Winchester Sun
Derek Willis isn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but the former Bullitt East standout has been turning heads behind the scenes.
Willis, one of nine freshman on Kentucky’s basketball roster, has earned praise from his coach following stellar practice sessions to begin his collegiate career.
“Derek Willis is better than I thought,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said at UK’s Media Day.
Willis forced Calipari to stop a recent practice session after he wowed the Kentucky coach and the rest of his teammates when he threw down a dunk on Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. Randle and Johnson both refered to the play as a hard layup, while Calipari insisted it was a dunk. Willis took a low-key approach to the jaw-opening play.
“It was just a play and I went baseline,” Willis said. “That’s really all it was. He stopped practice, but it was just a play, really.”
Since he arrived on campus, Willis has been displaying his skills in pickup games but reached another level with the slam over Randle and Johnson. He didn’t declare the play as one indicating that he had arrived, but made it clear he wasn’t backing down.
“During pickup games, I was trying to show I could do (those things) and trying to fit in, but that was just like another play, really,” he said. “I’m not saying I do it all of the time, but it was like another play. I was just showing my athleticism and what I could do.”
The “play” was just one of many Willis has made during preseason workouts, while competing against a roster stocked with talent and fueled to make a run at the school’s ninth national championship
“Derek Willis is going to be a really good player,” Calipari said. “He’s learning (and) he’s creating good habits. This team is going to be a hard team to steal minutes (from), but I’ll tell you what, he’s playing as well as anybody.”
Willis described himself as “more of the under-the-radar type of guy.”
“Kids coming in didn’t know what I could do, but now, they can see that I can play a little bit and I’m just trying to feel myself out on this team,” he said. “I think it’s going well.”
The 6-9 Willis matches up against Randle in practice and is consistently learning. Willis said the competition is “good” and has proved to be beneficial in the early stages of his Kentucky career.
“It’s really tough going up against him, because he’s so physically strong,” Willis said. “It’s hard sometimes, but we compete. It’s made me a better player from playing against him. He’s making me better, like I’m making him better. I’m really long, so I can use my body and make it tough on him sometimes.”
Although he has a big frame, Willis is working consistently to develop his strength in the post.
“I feel like physically I can’t really body up with people, and I’m not really mature yet physical-wise,” he said. “Just getting stronger (is my goal) and that comes with a lot of work.”
Willis also is making adjustments off the court and lists doing his own laundry as one of the chores he has learned while in Lexington. He’s also getting used to the
independence of being a college student-athlete and what it means to be a Wildcat.
“It’s all been about being more responsible and things like that,” he said. “As a fan, I knew what Kentucky basketball was all about, coming down here, I didn’t expect all of this stuff. It’s almost like you’re a professional (basketball player) because they have you doing so much, and at the end of the day, you have to do homework.”