Derek Willis of Bullitt East, a top-35 player in the class of 2013, will announce Friday whether he’ll play college basketball at Kentucky, Louisville, Indiana or Purdue.
The 6-foot-8 Willis originally committed to Purdue as a sophomore before changing his mind and re-opening his recruitment.
Family friend Kevin Veeley has known Willis since he was 6 years old and was his Little League baseball coach.
“My son was best friends with him until we moved to Shelbyville three years ago, and they still talk all the time,” Veeley said. “My daughter used to spend the night with their daughter, Taylor, all the time.”
Veeley not only coached his son and Willis, but he was also on the sideline at other times along with Willis’ father, Delbert, watching the two boys play.
“Del is doing what any father would do for his son. And I’m here to tell you that when Derek is playing, Del completely eliminates himself from the picture and doesn’t get involved. He gets a bad rap because he’s involved, but who wouldn’t want to be involved with such a big decision?” Veeley said. “Del and Derek both are class guys and good folks. Mark my word, once Derek signs you will not see or hear anything from Del other than cheering for his son and the team.”
Here are other insights Veeley offered on Derek Willis and his family:
Question: What kind of overall athlete is Derek Willis?
Veeley: “In my opinion, he is very athletic and will surprise people with his athleticism. I can tell you this, he would have been good no matter what sport he chose. He's got good speed, decent hops.
“In baseball he played with kids older than him and he was the starting shortstop, despite being a foot taller than everyone else on the team, he batted leadoff because of his speed and could throw the ball 70 plus miles an hour when he was 11 years old. He threw multiple no-hitters and a perfect game for us.
“I've heard people say he is like a more athletic Kyle Wiltjer, but I would rank him right up there close to Anthony Davis with his athleticism, although he's not near as long and maybe doesn't quite have the hops, but he has similar speed and probably better ball-handling and shooting. He could play point guard if he wanted.
“People don't realize that the kid is a young junior. He's only been 16 for a few months. He needs to get stronger and more aggressive, and he will.”
Question: What is he like away from the basketball court or baseball field?
Veeley: “Off the court, he was always trying to make people laugh. He always stood out because of his height, but did not carry himself in a cocky or self-confident way. I believe he used humor as a way to relate.
“He likes to make people laugh. He gets a lot of that from Del. With the exception of all the hoopla, he is very typical for a 16-year-old.
Question: What do you think of his family?
Veeley: “Del and Trudy are good people. Hard-working, involved, loving parents. My kids have stayed with them several times, and I always knew they would be well cared for. They are close-knit and fun people. Del gets a bad rap because he's ‘involved,’ but his son is barely 16 years old and shown a propensity to make quick, rash decisions (commitment to Purdue).
“I think Del would be doing Derek a disservice if he wasn't more involved. People see quotes out there and think he's trying to get famous or something, and Del would be the first to admit that he wishes he didn't say a couple of things, but he has one thing in mind, and that's helping Derek. Trudy is very easy going and was a heck of an athlete herself. Just check out his sister Kylie in the years to come, also. She's going to be special, also.
“I honestly don't think any of them get as wrapped up in this whole process as others think. I remember Derek being so surprised when he got to Bullitt East with how the student body treated him. He is so humble, he couldn't believe that they treated him special. He's just a kid. People need to remember that.
Question: Has his growth into a big-time college basketball prospect surprised you?
Veeley: “Not at all. First time I saw him play he was in third grade and I was watching him play basketball at field day at the elementary school. He was going behind his back on the dribble full speed then, hitting 3s, et cetera. He was the best ball-handler in the gym, even though he was so much taller than everyone else.
“I told my son back then that Derek's future would be basketball, even though he could have played baseball at an extremely high level as well. You just could see it even then, he was special.
“Nothing on the court has surprised me. I think I am surprised at the level of scrutiny that he has unfairly received being such a big-time recruit and backing out of a commitment he made when he was barely 15 years old.
“In the end, he really did the right thing, the mature thing. Why should he stick to a commitment that was admittedly not well thought out? He admitted his mistake and corrected it. More people need to realize that he handled it well and made the mature, correct choice in reopening his recruitment.”
Question: Considering he grew up in a family of Louisville fans, would it surprise you if he did pick Kentucky?
Veeley: “I was surprised when he picked Purdue so early, but I would not be surprised if he picked Kentucky, because they are smart folks and would not make a decision based on being a fan alone. They are going to make the best decision for Derek's future.
“I do not know what that decision will be, but I know that just because he grew up a UofL fan and Del normally totes around a UofL hat on his head doesn't mean that UofL is a lock. Del is a fan of his son first, and he will support Derek in whatever he chooses, and ultimately the decision will be the one that makes the most sense and whatever is the best fit for Derek.
“If he ends up at UofL, it won't be because they are UofL fans, it will be based on what is best. That's why I think could ultimately lead him to UK. We will see on Friday.”
Question: If the choice is Kentucky, how do you see him fitting in not only on the court for coach John Calipari, but also off the court with the UK fan base?
Veeley: “I know from experience that Derek likes to be challenged and responds well when pushed hard. I think coach Cal's ability to be hard on his players, yet not seem like the enemy to them is a great plus and will bode well for Derek if he ends up there.
“I believe that Derek will take well to coach Cal's pushing him to be the best, because ‘Cal’ makes them feel like family first and lets them know they are loved, even when he's hollering. Then, of course, he backs what he says up with a track record of success.
“Off the court, I think the fan base would be surprised how humble and funny he is. I'm sure as with all freshman, if he chooses UK, it will take him time to get acclimated to the 24/7 craziness that UK fans present — craziness that I am mostly proud of. But in the end, he will enjoy it and embrace it and become a huge fan favorite. I truly believe that he could become, if he chooses UK, one of the all-time favorites.
“He has a little bit of ‘Jorts’ (Josh Harrellson) and ‘Boogie’ (Demarcus Cousins) sense of humor to him and a very high ceiling that will make him unique. I can tell you this:¿Even if he were to do well enough to get drafted after a year or two, you can look for him to stay around and enjoy the experience and get his education, which will endear him to the fans even more.
“The Willis family is a good, all-American, normal family, and they are dealing with some things that 99 percent of people could not even fathom — phone calls, visits, rabid fans, media. From a fellow parent's point of view, I think its hard enough to be a parent of an athlete, all the running to and from practices, games, events, fundraising, support of the athletic department, expenses, but also the parental side of motivation, encouragement, talks and that every parent has to deal with. Imagine that turned up 100 times. Now tell me, could you have handled it any better?
“The kid will be a success because of the backbone of that family and because he was raised right. And no matter what, he will still be Derek, the kid that makes you laugh. Basketball is the reason people know of him, but it does not define him.”