Some people like to party when they get out of work on Fridays. I am one of those people. That’s why I spent my Friday evening in beautiful Mount Washington, Kentucky watching the Bullitt East Chargers battle with America’s team, the South Oldham Dragons, in a gym that was as packed and rowdy as you’d expect on a cold Bullitt County night.
The obvious attraction was Derek Willis, the 6’9″ junior forward who brought together John Calipari and Rick Pitino earlier in the week and whose recruitment represents the first local head-to-head battle between the state’s most famous faces.
By now, Willis’ resume is fairly well-known. He’s ranked by Rivals.com as the nation’s 23rd-best player and decommitted from Purdue in August. Willis is still considering the Boilermakers, along with the Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky and for the next year or so, he’s going to be getting a lot of attention locally as the four schools press after him. And after spending one night watching him play against America’s Team, it’s easy to see why.
The scouting report on Willis is that he’s a versatile big man. He can play inside. He can play outside. He can handle the ball. Against South Oldham, he not only did all of those things, he did them very well. Willis spent a significant portion of the game bringing the ball up against the press, using his length to pass over the smaller defenders and displaying nice handles in working the Dragon guards back and forth against the full-court press. He appeared to be equally comfortable in attacking the basket of the dribble as he was pulling the trigger on a three. And when he caught the ball on the block, Willis showed some glimpses of some polished post moves.
One person I spoke with called him a “European-type big man”, a compliment to his versatility, but also one that very often carries a frustrating connotation. And that’s what I found particularly intriguing about Willis. He does play a bit like a European big man, but not finger-rolling finesse players that too often ultimately prove themselves to be soft. Instead, Willis is more of the bad-ass, smoking-cigarettes-in-the-gym and rocking a killer mustache European big man. The kid plays hard and has a little edge.
Willis is a physical player and didn’t just refuse to shy away from contact, he initiated it. Though he had a sizable height advantage on South Oldham, Willis didn’t play lazy or simply rely on those extra inches to just get by. If a shot was in the air, he put a body on people and when he was on offense, he scrapped for position with a team that South Oldham coach Steve Simpson said plays as hard as any group that he’s coached. Willis told me after the game that he pays special attention to initiating contact and establishing himself as a physical presence. For a kid that isn’t exactly built like Svend Karlson and has the game to play away from the block, that was refreshing.
That’s not to say that he is not without faults. Willis, much like most 6’9″ eleventh graders, is thin. And as wonderful as it may be that he tries to focus on playing physical, he clearly needs to get stronger. He turned the ball over several times and most of them were caused by simply not being strong enough to protect the ball. And if we’re nitpicking, his jumper isn’t the most mechanically sound thing in the world and his athleticism isn’t breathtaking, though it’s a lot better than what people have billed it to be.
But those are all minor criticisms and the truth is, I was incredibly impressed with Derek Willis. Several people asked me afterward if he’s the type of player that can play in John Calipari’s system at UK, and I think the answer is unquestionably “yes”. He’s big, he’s skilled, he moves very well for his size and he plays hard. I think he would fit well into any system.
And if that system happens to be the red and black one down I-64?
We’ll just pretend like this post never existed.
*For those of you not in the reading mood, I also had a (very) brief chat with Willis after the game…