If there is one thing that the Big Blue Nation loves, it's hometown boys and girls playing for the Kentucky Wildcats. Darius Miller, Jarrod Polson, Scott Padgett, Cameron Mills, and Dominique Hawkins are just a few of the more recent Kentucky born and bred players that have graced the court in Rupp Arena. We feel a kinship with these players that is different from the bond we share with the rest of the team.
These players may have been from our town or county. We could have watched them play in small high school gyms or maybe we know a relative or two. We've read about them in local papers and watched their highlights on local news broadcasts. We watched them rise to the status of a Division I basketball player before our very eyes and earn the right to wear the most respected sports jersey in the state.
Derek Willis is one of those local players that we all avidly cheer for and follow. Born in Mount Washington, Willis grew up a Louisville fan but opted to play for John Calipari and the Wildcats over Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals.
Why? Because he wanted to be challenged and he wanted to compete against the best in the country. And that turned out to be more of a challenge that he anticipated.
Willis was interviewed by Cart Rosenbaum for the Native American internet publication Indian Country Today Media Network about his Native American heritage and his time at Kentucky. When asked about playing with future NBA draft picks, Willis answered:
It was a lot of learning really, transitioning from high school to college. Competing with [last year’s No. 1 NBA draft pick] Karl Anthony-Towns my freshman year. I had to get used to that but that helped me out a lot. Willie [Cauley-Stein, No. 6 overall draft pick last year] was different to guard. You learn a lot. You just look at the game different from playing those positions and guarding ‘em
There was a time in his career that his dedication to basketball was questioned, not by his coaches or the fans, but by himself. It had to have been difficult to be buried on the bench behind such talent and maybe thinking that coming to Kentucky was the wrong decision. Maybe if he had gone to Louisville, he would be playing, or even starting and becoming a star.
Willis and John Calipari have had an up and down relationship. Cal has been hard on Willis in public, particularly about his lack of effort on defense, and that isn't easy on anyone, especially a 20 year old basketball player. Willis directly discussed his relationship with his head coach:
But Derek earned his spot in the starting rotation last season. With the injuries to Alex Poythress and the struggles of Skal Labissiere, Willis was thrust into the spotlight and thrived. He became an extra scoring threat on the perimeter, he showcased athleticism that some of either didn't realize or forget he had, but most importantly he dedicated himself to rebounding and to defense, two things that last season's team lacked.
Even though he missed time due to an ankle injury, Willis proved that he can play on the Division I level. He proved that he could play at Kentucky. And most importantly, he proved that he could play the type of basketball that John Calipari demands.
The emergence of Willis wasn't just surprising to Big Blue Nation, Sports Illustrated named him one of the ten most surprising basketball players in the country last season.
But with more talent in the post coming in this season, what should we expect from the player from Mount Washington? A great deal, I would argue. Even though incoming shooting guard Malik Monk won the McDonald's All-American three-point shooting contest, this freshman class isn't considered a great shooting team. Derek Willis was the second best three-pointer shooter behind Jamal Murray last season.
Willis realizes his potential and he has set lofty goals for himself and his team next season:
With Derek Willis dedicating himself even more to defense and winning a title, something that he has not always done, he has the opportunity this season to be a key figure in what should be a great team. Even if Willis doesn't start, he could play the role that Darius Miller played back in 2012. A senior sixth man off of the bench that gives the opposing team a match-up problem due to his size and his shooting ability. Whenever Darius went into the game, we all knew he was going to bury a three. I think that is something that Willis can do.
With all of the athletes on the court slashing to the rim and the big guys putting their backs to the baskets, Willis is going to have some wide-open looks on the perimeter. The threat of Willis knocking down jumpers will be enough to make defenses honor him and that will open up the offense for the rest of the team.
But Willis is more than just a decoy. He can play. He proved it to everybody. But most importantly, he proved it to Derek Willis.