Odds are if you’ve followed Derek Willis’ career at Kentucky the past four years, you’re familiar with his girlfriend Keely Potts. Few Kentucky players’ girlfriends have been in the spotlight quite like Keely, who met Derek three years ago at a party thrown by Willie Cauley-Stein. Whether it’s cheering Derek on at Rupp in her custom “Willis” jersey or advocating his play on social media, Keely has been her boyfriend’s most vocal supporter, and in a day and age in which fans strive to get to know players better, she’s also been a window into his journey at Kentucky. Now that the journey’s coming to an end, she reflected on what it’s meant to them both in an interview with me earlier this week.
“He’s nervous,” Keely said of Derek’s emotions heading into Senior Night. “He told my mom he was going to be very emotional and cry. He’s a crier. I’m going to be an emotional wreck. I already keep crying.”
A Mt. Washington native, Derek came to Kentucky as a three-star, top 100 prospect with offers from Indiana, Louisville, and Purdue. He wasn’t just the token Kentucky kid on the roster; yesterday, John Calipari said when he first watched Derek play, he was floored by his talent.
“Derek, it was a potential of, oh my gosh. This young man here, the length, the ability to shoot the ball, the skill set, you know, we just gotta pull this all together.”
Derek would be the first to admit that pulling it together has been a four-year process. Being stuck behind essentially two teams of NBA Draft picks took its toll on Derek’s confidence his first two seasons, which Keely said led him to question whether or not he was worthy of wearing the Kentucky jersey.
“I think his most difficult moment in his four years here was believing he could play for this team,” Keely said. “I mean, really, truly play and contribute. After not playing his first two seasons, he lacked major self-confidence. He started to forget just what he came here to do, and what he was capable of doing. We always told him to be patient and that his time would come, but I think for a while he just didn’t believe that. He couldn’t see himself playing. He was competing against top NBA draft picks every year, and it was a constant uphill battle.”
The turning point for Derek came midway through last season when Keely and Derek’s dad Del sat down with him and gave him a tough love pep talk.
“While Del and I both are Derek’s biggest fans, we are also his biggest critics,” Keely said. “I can’t speak on Del’s behalf, but one of things I can remember always saying to Derek was that he had to go out there and play for the name on his chest. Playing for Kentucky means you must be pretty freaking good, and he needed to remember that. If he wasn’t capable of playing and contributing to this team, then he wouldn’t have been asked to be a part of it. If his coaches didn’t believe in his ability and skills to play for them, then they wouldn’t be his coaches. That is something I had to constantly remind him.”
Derek became an integral part of last year’s team and embraced his role as a senior leader on this squad, but even now, Keely says his confidence fluctuates at times. Thankfully, when it does, she and Del are there to provide encouragement.
“Then and even now, he sometimes overlooks the positives and focuses only on the negatives of how he played each game,” Keely said. “His dad and I try to help encourage him, by saying, ‘Yeah, you may have messed up here, but look at what you did do.'”
As he approaches the finish line of his career at Kentucky, Derek’s playing the best basketball of his life. While his efforts on the boards have ebbed and flowed over the years, Derek is one of the Cats’ strongest rebounders as of late, pulling down 22 boards in the past three games. When Derek’s on, he gives the team another dimension and for Kentucky to make a run in March, they’ll need him to play a pivotal role. While Derek’s recent on the court success has been gratifying, Keely said he feels his biggest contributions have come off the court, where he’s formed a close bond with the fans. Although he and Dominique Hawkins are the quintessential “Kentucky boys” on the roster, Derek actually grew up a Louisville fan (gasp!); however, Keely said playing for the program and its fans has made him a Wildcat for life.
“Playing for UK has been an awesome adventure for Derek and he loves the pride that the fans of the Big Blue Nation share for the program. I remember asking him what made him choose UK, and he’s always said, ‘Well, I knew the coaching staff could make me become the best possible player, but the fans are what really sold me the program.’ Every game he plays means more to him because he knows how much it means to the fans.”
Keely said Derek takes the responsibility of being a Kentucky player personally, whether it means visiting a sick fan in the hospital or simply replying to a fan on social media.
“Derek is constantly doing whatever he can to make a connection or a difference in someone’s life. He has a soft spot for people with unfortunate situations and wants to do whatever he can in order to make them feel better, even if that means tweeting a fan back, or making a hospital visit. To him, it’s such a small gesture, but he knows that it means a lot to many.”
With that in mind, Keely knows she needs to bring tissues tonight.
“Because of Derek’s connection to the fans, Tuesday night is going to be an emotional roller coaster. As this chapter of his life slowly comes to an end, I think it’s going to be a bittersweet feeling as he reflects on his time here and the memories he’s made in Rupp Arena. Rupp has been Derek’s second home for the past four years and mine for the past three. Tonight is going to be emotional for us both.”
Thanks to Keely for talking with us. Click through the jump to read an additional fan Q&A she did via Twitter yesterday:
Keely answers your questions about Derek:
What was your first impression of Derek?
My first impression of Derek is the same as my impression of him now. I didn’t really know what to expect of him. All I know is that I didn’t expect him to be anything like the person he is. He far exceeded any and all of my expectations. He is so genuine, and down to earth and has a very unique sense of humor. He’s the best person I know and for many reasons, not just one. One thing that really sticks out about Derek is his curiosity about life. The boy stays curious about literally everything. Whether it’s something going on with the solar system, politics, computer programming, sports, anything.
If Derek had to give advice to other multi-year guys at UK, what would he say?
Stay in the gym and be patient. Your time is going to come, whether you’re playing quality minutes or not playing at all. You just have to keep working at it.
What is Derek’s favorite NBA team?
San Antonio Spurs
What is Derek’s favorite on-court memory as a Wildcat?
Shooting a last-minute three against Texas A&M in the SEC Championship game that put them ahead.
What do you admire most about Derek?
There’s so much to admire about Derek that it’s hard for me to choose one thing. Derek is so selfless, and is constantly going out of his way to put others first. He also has a very unique sense of humor, one that’s kept me laughing to this day. Like I said, there are many things that I admire about Derek, but these are a couple of the things I admire most.
Who did Derek love playing with the most through out his four years at UK?