LOUISVILLE — He didn’t want to admit he was nervous, but Kentucky signee Derek Willis knew the Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic was his chance to show others why he was one of the “other” players in coach John Calipari’s top-ranked recruiting class.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous, but I didn’t really like feel comfortable playing in this atmosphere at first. I started to loosen up and get a few shots in and run up and down the court and kind of made it a little more comfortable in the second half,” Willis said after the game Friday in Freedom Hall.
The Bullitt East senior had six points — all in the second half — along with seven rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots in 16 minutes. He was 3 for 7 from the field — including 0 for 2 from 3-point range — and had two turnovers.
“It was just a real fun atmosphere and real fun game. I got to play with (future Wildcat) Dominique (Hawkins) for the first time, so that was good, too,” Willis said. “"We were rooming together, so we kind of got to talk and get acquainted with each other. He's got the same personality as I do. He's pretty laid back, pretty quiet. Keeps to himself. He is pretty good kid."
Willis even had a little fun with Louisville signee Akoy Agau during his team’s 124-113 win over Agau’s team.
“He talks a lot of smack, but it was really fun,” Willis said.
The most fun, though, was showing doubters why Calipari and assistant coach Orlando Antigua have been so high on him, even when his recruiting ranking dipped last summer. They never lost belief that the 6-9 Willis had the all-around skills to be a versatile player in the mold of Anthony Davis with his ability to score outside, play inside, handle the ball and pass.
"I don't really like all-star games, because I feel like I have to be selfish," Willis said. "I'm really about the team, everybody getting theirs and then me getting mine. It was different, but I kind of came out with a different attitude and different mindset.
“It stuck in the back of my mind about the whole thing of me kind of falling off and the whole recruiting scene kind of went down the drain for me, and that really hit me in the heart about that. I wanted to come and show people what I could do.”
Bullitt East coach Troy Barr, who was co-coach of the White team Willis played on, thought his star gave a preview of what lies ahead for him at Kentucky. He even worked it out so Willis could play point guard late in the game.
“You saw what he is capable of and the way he can pass the ball. You obviously saw him and (Bullitt East teammate) Rusty Troutman make plays and could see they had played together,” Barr said. “I think people saw a little bit right there of what Derek can do and the way he can find people. He still has to refine that a little bit. He had a turnover on one pass, but I am telling you he is going to be special there. People are going to love him.
“The crossover out top. He had a big (man) on him and crossed over and went down the lane. That is what he going to continue to be able to do. These are the guys he will be playing against the next four years. He held his own.
“He didn’t shoot the ball very well tonight, but honestly he has not been working out. He has been working and saving money for school. He is trying to be a kid right now. He knows it will get real serious the first of June when he reports (to Kentucky). He knows he is out of shape and his shot is off a little bit, but he held his own.”
Willis emphasized again that “I don’t really like to talk about myself” when pressed about evaluating his point guard play.
“I do feel like I am versatile. I feel like I can play the point, but I have to work on my ball-handling like anybody. It was fun to get out and run the point and have somebody set a screen for me instead of me setting screens for somebody else. I look forward to more of that next year,” he said.
“It was nice that I finally got to play someone one on one and got to go against another man instead of having three kids come at me or clawing at my back (like he faced during the high school season). That was good. I am looking forward to college-level basketball right now and getting that all the time.”
Barr knows he’s biased, but he said he felt Willis was as good as anyone in the game the second half. However, the coach knew his player was far from perfect.
“I thought where he really struggled was rebounding. He got pushed under the basket quite a bit,” Barr said. “He has got to get stronger. He gave up a lot of offensive rebounds. Other than that, he held his own and did some really special things there late in the game. He was a big reason we pulled away and won.”
Barr doesn’t think Willis’ play will impact how Willis feels about himself when he starts his UK career.
“It’s no big deal. Derek just plays. He doesn’t worry about what he did yesterday. He doesn’t worry about what’s coming tomorrow. Whatever is in front of him, he’s going to play and that will be it,” Barr said. “Coach Cal is going to coach him up down there, and he’ll get better. They are going to work with him individually, and he is going to be a special player. Just wait. He will be special.”
No Willis predictions on Wiggins
Willis correctly predicted during the state tournament that Julius Randle, the nation’s top-ranked power forward, would pick UK. However, Willis didn’t want to make any predictions on Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, after Friday’s Kentucky Derby Festival Basketball Classic.
“That is, like, the golden question right now of college basketball recruiting. I am trying to figure it out just like anybody right now,” the Bullitt East senior said.
“I am going to keep it to myself on this one,” Willis said. “This is big. When I find it out, I will be sure to tell somebody, but I am going to keep it to myself.”
He wouldn’t budge even when reminded he was also right earlier about twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison picking Kentucky. They played with Wiggins on Saturday in the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore., as did Randle.
“It’s easy to figure out once you get to looking into it, but that’s all I’m saying,” Willis said. “Everybody wants to know what he’s going to do, but I just don’t think anybody, including him, really knows right now.”