As the first member to join up with the 2013 recruiting class Derek Willis often seems to get lost in the shuffle. He’s not a McDonalds All-American that will make the leap to the NBA after one year. He didn’t burst on the scene in March like fellow in state talent Dominique Hawkins and captivate Big Blue Nation. What he is though is a Kentucky kid with game and one profiled this week by Eric Lindsey of CoachCal.com.
Derek Willis has a confession to make: He grew up a Louisville fan.
Born and raised in the Derby City, it was only natural for Willis to turn to the Cardinals. His parents grew up U of L fans, so he became one. He wore red and got into arguments with his Kentucky friends when Louisville played the Wildcats.
“We weren’t like diehard, like it’s U of L or nothing else … but yeah, we were Louisville fans — or I was growing up,” Willis said.
Now, Willis is a Kentucky Wildcat. The first signee of the star-studded 2013 recruiting class, Willis picked UK over Purdue, Indiana and his childhood team, U of L.
Why pass on the school he dreamed of playing for when it was a possibility? The choice was simple.
“It was the best option for me,” Willis said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “Every other school that recruited me, they were great schools, but I felt that Kentucky could do more for me and I had better opportunities here. I looked at the pros and cons of each as well as the other colleges too. Kentucky was just the better opportunity.”
When Willis signed with UK, he was considered one of the top 30 players in the country by several recruiting services. A long, athletic forward who could put the ball on the floor as well as beat you inside — Willis said he molds his game after Kevin Durant — he was considered a can’t-miss prospect in Kentucky’s own backyard.
None of those attributes ever faded for Willis after his decision to come to UK, but his ranking slowly did as Willis became a target for his competition. Much like the players experience at Kentucky when everyone tries to make a name for themselves against the Cats, Willis was the player everybody played a little harder against because he was the kid who was going to UK.
Willis knew all along it was always an honor to play at Kentucky, but there is also a burden that comes with it.
“When you’re going to a big college like I was, you have a bull’s eye on your back,” Willis said. “Any game back in high school that we had, I had people just like gunning for me. There was always someone trying to get me out of the game. I had to get used to it.”
Willis’ stats suffered just a bit and he learned to deal with the competition, as did his recruiting ranking. By the time his senior year rolled around, Willis had dropped outside the top 100. Willis said he noticed the fall, but he tried not to pay attention.
The profile is definitely worth a read. Willis sounds like a kid who knows what it means to wear the blue and white and a smart kid as he decided to bury his Cardinal roots. It’s going to be fun watch him develop into a superstar over the next four years.