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Kentucky Basketball: The X-Man Cometh In The Person Of Derek Willis

When the weak and timid guy suddenly Hulks up and plays strong, it shows in the results.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Funny thing, basketball. It’s never ceases to amaze me how one player can change the fortunes of a team, not just because he might be playing well (or better, at least), but also because of the way he impacts the game. In basketball, that player can come from anywhere, but usually shows up from the deep recesses of the bench — a colorful but limited Josh Harrellson, a.k.a Jorts, who roared to prominence in the 2010-11 season comes immediately to mind. Also, the absence of a player that might not have been first round draft pick material can have the same sort of influence on a team, like Duke’s unfortunate loss of Amile Jefferson. Sometimes, all it takes is that one guy, who doesn’t have to be an NBA green-roomer, and a team can suddenly change its stars.

It may be slightly too early to say definitively, but Derek Willis’ recent play has significantly impacted Kentucky in a very positive way. Prior to Willis seeing major minutes, Kentucky was doing okay, but seemed to be lacking something. That something was essentially a "stretch 4" or big swing forward to help unclog the lane and force teams to guard Kentucky honestly, rather than packing it in and forcing the Wildcats to shoot threes. Alex Poythress has never been able to fill that bill, and going small became much more difficult when Dominique Hawkins went down to a high-ankle sprain.

The emergence

For the past three games, Willis has changed Kentucky’s fortunes. You may wonder about the Auburn game, but that is actually a special case. It was a road game where a hot player made an absurd number of 3-point shots, almost all of them challenged and one of them a 28’ bank from the right wing. Combine that with the disappearing act by Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee, and you have an unexpected road loss. But if UK had gotten even modest production from the front line, a slightly friendlier whistle and a few less off-the-chart-level-of-difficulty makes from Kareem Canty, that game is a win, too.

Consider Willis’ production in the last three contests:

Opp Minutes Points 2-pt 3-pt FT DR OR Blocks Steals Asst TO
Auburn 31 12 2-5 2-5 2-2 9 3 1 1 2 2
Arkansas 35 12 3-4 2-4 0-0 5 2 4 1 0 1
Vanderbilt 30 7 1-2 1-6 2-2 8 1 1 1 0 0

These aren’t superstar numbers, to be sure, but he’s averaging 10 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in the last three games. That’s almost a double-double. In fact, in the Vanderbilt game Willis shot the ball poorly from three, making only one. But he got a lot of open looks that normally go for him, and he just keeps getting better and better defensively and rebounding the basketball.

How Willis affects the game

The way that Willis has really has helped the Wildcats is his shooting threat. Previously, you didn’t have to guard Poythress, Lee, or Skal Labissiere anywhere but in or near the paint. That’s not the case for Willis. Not only can he shoot the three, but he is doing yeoman’s work on the offensive and defensive glass, rebounding the ball better than Lee in every game but one in SEC play, not to mention being far more dangerous on offense.

The other angle that is often overlooked is that Willis gives you another free throw shooter and pinch ball handler, and Kentucky desperately needs that. Where Lee is an outright liability on the line and Poythress is "maybeso," Willis is a 90% free throw shooter (that’s right, even better than Tyler Ulis’ 86%, though in far fewer shots). You can’t foul him, you must guard him everywhere on the floor, and because of his length on defense he can be a nightmare, as the Arkansas game clearly illustrated.

Willis is also Kentucky’s best wing-entry passer, although they haven’t used him for that very much because most of Kentucky’s offense this year has been initiated off high pick-and-rolls. We never have quite found the magic of the 2010 team side dribble hand-off pick and roll or pick and pop that Brandon Knight and Harrellson made such a threat, but the latter can be quite possible using Willis in a way that it isn’t with anyone else. Part of the problem is the guards — they make their cuts too far away from the screener. But we could enter the post more from the wing when Poythress is playing like he did versus Vanderbilt.

Now, Willis can’t really get his own, shot, but he doesn’t need to — we have Jamal Murray, Ulis and to some extent Isaiah Briscoe for that. What he provides is a third spot-up shooter who doesn’t significantly downsize the front line, and with him putting all that effort into rebounding and defense, he has become a genuine "X-factor" that has made Kentucky a significantly better team. To my point, all of you who thought going into the last two games that Kentucky would hold 20+ point leads late in the game and go on to win effortlessly, hold up your hands. Mine is not up, I assure you.

Moving forward

Willis isn’t likely to become what we consider a star, but he’s a complementary piece we desperately needed, primarily because neither Poythress nor Lee can space the floor and force opposing defenses to open up driving lanes. With Willis in the game defending hard rather than doing his best Pasodoble imitation, Kentucky’s opponents cannot pack in their zones or sagging man-to-man to defend the rim without giving him looks from the corner and the wing, and picking that poison isn’t working out well anymore. Add in some surprisingly efficient rebounding and a newfound defensive competence, and Willis looks like the player we had all hoped he might become.

Of course, the question is always, "Can he keep it up?" I don’t know, and neither do you, but as long as he does, Kentucky is a significantly more dangerous basketball team than they were without him. Add in a returning Dominque Hawkins to provide better reserve guard play, and Kentucky becomes pretty darn good even if Labissiere never shows up. If the big guy does find his confidence, a la the Arkansas game, the Wildcats could be really good.

Finally, Willis has provided a challenge to Lee by taking his starting spot. Lee has not responded well to the demotion, but Marcus is a smart kid who wants to succeed, and I expect that he’ll up his game. If that, plus Hawkins’ return is all that happens between now and the SEC Tournament, I like our chances a lot better than I did three weeks ago.