The recruiting interest continues to grow, but Bullitt East junior Derek Willis won’t be in a hurry to make a second verbal commitment, and he definitely wants to know more both Kentucky and Louisville.
The 6-9 Willis, who averaged 13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds as a sophomore and helped his team reach the state tournament semifinals, recently de-committed from Purdue after earlier giving a verbal commitment to coach Matt Painter.
Since then he’s taken unofficial visits to both Kentucky and Louisville.
Bullitt East coach Troy Barr says his star is “wide open” in recruiting now.
“Other than Purdue, nobody has even offered him (a scholarship) yet. The interest is very high as far as phone calls, but there are no other offers,” said Barr.
“He is a Kentucky kid, so it is automatic that he would have interest in Louisville and Kentucky. Any Kentucky kid would have. He’s a very humble, laid-back kid. He’s not caught up in who he is or how good he is. He just wants to find the best fit for him and make the choice based on how well his game and the system will mesh together.”
Barr said Willis’ de-commitment from Purdue was overblown by some.
“He is a 16-year-old kid and he is curious. When he committed, he did not understand he could not take official visits down the road,” Barr said. “He has a great summer and a lot of schools are talking like they are interested in him. Contacts are being made just to let him know schools are interested. It has peaked his curiosity. He really wanted to see what other options are out there compared to Purdue.
“The question now is did Purdue eliminate him and I don’t think either one of us know the answer to that. He wants Purdue to still be an option, but he also wants to see who else is interested.”
Delbert Willis, the player’s father, said his son, who just turned 16 in late June, felt some pressure to commit when he was at Purdue because Painter told him the school had only one scholarship left for the 2013 class and the first of three players with a scholarship offer to commit would get it.
“We had said our goodbyes, but before I¿could start the car engine he said he wanted to commit. I said, ‘Don’t you want to drive home.’ He said, ‘No, I want to commit.’ My wife got excited, so we called the coach and they came back down. Coach Painter tried to explain what committing was all about, but I don’t think Derek fully understood the whole process,” Delbert Willis said.
He said the decision to de-commit “tore Derek up pretty good” even after Painter asked him to think about it a few more days after his original decision.
“He felt he gave his word and even if he was just 15 at the time, he wanted to honor his word. I told him he was a kid, not an adult, and it was okay to change his mind but not to make a habit of doing that,” his father said. “Now he’s going to wait to commit until after he took his official visits. He’ll make a smart decision.”
Barr said Willis, who also hopes to visit Indiana soon, has received “over 200 pieces of mail” from Oklahoma State in the last few months. He also noted that Louisville was quick to renew its interest after he backed off his commitment to Purdue.
“UK is getting involved, too,” Barr said. “Both coaches (John Calipari and Rick Pitino) have a lot going on now with Pitino in the Bahamas (on an exhibition trip) and Calipari coaching the Dominican Republic team. I’m not sure they can really focus on 2013 recruiting right now. But both have shown interest, even though I would not say they have stepped it up that much yet.”
Delbert Willis knows he created a bit of an Internet buzz when he was quoted as saying their visit to Kentucky was “real eye-opening” and that his statement was misunderstood.
“Just because I live in Kentucky and cheer for Kentucky just like I¿do Louisville, I didn’t know everything about Kentucky,” Delbert Willis said. “I make no secret that I am a Louisville fan first, but I do not hate Kentucky. I¿just had never been to the UK¿campus. I¿have never seen the Joe Craft Center. I¿had never been to Wildcat Lodge. I guarantee you there are thousands of Kentucky fans that have not been, either. The layout of the campus is beautiful.
“It was the true college atmosphere we want for Derek for four years so he can enjoy being a college kid. We talked to coach Cal. He is very personable, very laid back. It was a real casual talk with no pressure. That’s all I was meaning by eye-opening. I just had never had a chance to see all that before.”
Willis went to Louisville two days later. Ironically, his father couldn’t go so he had a friend who happens to be a “die-hard” UK fan go with Derek. Delbert Willis and his wife went to Louisville a few days later.
“Coach Pitino took us around campus and everything. It was the first time I had ever cruised around the Louisville campus or first time to be in the practice facility. It was also a real enjoyable visit,” Delbert Willis said. “I was impressed by both programs. Derek is working out with a strength coach now who is a Louisville alumnus but a Wildcat fan. That’s how crazy things can be.”
Willis, who is considered a top-25 prospect by some recruiting analysts, had what Barr called a “phenomenal summer” for Bullitt East as well as for his AAU team.
“Last year as a sophomore everybody saw a ton of potential in him with our team,” Barr said. “I¿have seen stuff from Kentucky fans who say they could care less about him, but any Kentucky fan that comes out to see him will want him bad.
“He’s a great kid. He just turned 16 this summer. From a basketball perspective, the sky is the limit. Sometimes last year people would look at his skill set and forget he was just 15 and had the mind of a 15 year old. Purdue was his first offer and he was enamored with coach Painter, as he should have been, and made a quick decision. But Rodney Purvis de-committed to Louisville because an assistant coach left. It’s just like breaking up with your girlfriend. It happens when kids are this young and facing such big decisions.
“Right now he’s just a normal 16 year old playing basketball. Where the Kentucky-Louisville thing could come into play is when fans fill our stands. We are only 20 minutes from Louisville, so we get U of L fans here. And Lord knows there are a ton of UK¿fans around this area. We’ll see how he handles all the blue and red then.”
Delbert Willis knows the UK-Louisville factions will be obvious as long as his son is considering both schools.
“That will probably go on to signing day next year. Even if he committed to one school, those fans left out would be unhappy. He does not seem to be bothered with it too much,” Willis’ father said. “He tries to give people time and talk to them. His mom and I did not go through anything like this as players. But that was a different time.”
Barr says his star junior needs to add a “little bit of weight” but that he’s not a post player despite his size and 7-1 wing span.
“You might think he should play down low, but he is a guard with the way he can shoot, handle and pass. He is the tallest kid on our team and he is going to play guard and play on the perimeter in college,” Barr said. “His strength is playing behind the 3-point line. He does not need to put on a ton of weight to do that. He can do just about everything. He can shoot the 3. He can post up smaller players. He can post 6-9 guys or score outside on them.
“Derek is the best passer, best rebounder, best shot blocker on our team. I anticipate multiple triple-doubles (this season). I¿could see a quadruple double. He got close as a sophomore a couple of times to a quadruple double. It’s just a matter of time. He will have the ball and we have kids around him that can score.”
Barr has his team in the King of Bluegrass again and the Chargers will also take a trip to Florida to play. He’ll also have Trinity and another top team or two playing in a special event at Bullitt East on Jan. 29. There will also be a rematch with Rowan County, the team that eliminated Bullitt East in the 2011 state tourney, and Oklahoma State commit Adam Wing in the Joe B.¿Hall Classic at Montgomery County.
Those type games will showcase Willis and a junior class that Barr feels is as good or better than any junior class in Kentucky.
Willis’ father says he just wants his son to have an enjoyable junior season.
“I don’t know if any recruiting is truly enjoyable for anybody. Some kids let it get to their ego.¿It can be stressful,” Delbert Willis said. “We try to be respectful. We know everybody has a job to do, but we have a life, too. He is 16 and trying to get through high school. Of course, this is a major distraction, but he doesn’t think of himself as anything special.
“From last year at this time to the end of the year when the AAU circuit ended, he has really come along with his game. I¿look for him to have a nice year. He is such an unselfish kid, the coaches sometimes try to get him to shoot more. But that’s not him. He just wants to win and try to enjoy everything.”