When Derek Willis first made his way to Lexington, he became an instant fan favorite, as most local players do. Coming out of high school, he was considered a four-star prospect with several other D-1 offers, but opted to stay home and play in front of family and friends. He was able to live out the dreams of countless Kentuckians across the bluegrass.
Even with incredible support from the fan base, his “ceiling” was always seen as a future role player off the bench for the Wildcats. It wasn’t a knock on Willis, it was just believed to be reality with a new batch of five stars coming in every year manning the starting jobs.
To start his college career, “role player” may have even been a stretch. In his first two years at Kentucky, Willis averaged just 1.2 points and 3.35 minutes a game. He was given the “SHOOOOOOOOT” treatment every time he touched the floor.
Two years later, Willis became one of the most vital pieces for the Wildcats en route to an Elite Eight his senior year, receiving interest from numerous NBA scouts in the process. He averaged seven points, 5.4 rebounds, and an assist per game on nearly 50% shooting (38% from three.)
Even with a promising professional career coming up, however, Willis still wonders “what could have been.”
In an article by Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Mount Washington native admits he held himself back at Kentucky.
“I had the wrong approach about it,” he said Wednesday. When practice ended, “I’d just pretty much leave the gym and go with friends and do whatever. I could have spent another hour and worked on really anything. . . . I had the wrong mental approach about it, and I think that’s what held me back.”
When asked what he would have done differently, Willis said he should’ve worked harder early in his college career.
Willis said, “I would have stayed around the gym and worked out with (associate coach) Kenny Payne. Starting from my freshman year all the way till I was out of there. That’s one thing I really regret.”
Willis will participate in a pro day down in Miami, where he will compete with several other NBA prospects fighting for a shot in the league. Willis also has two personal workouts scheduled next week, one with the Boston Celtics, and another with the Detroit Pistons.
Playing in the NBA is certainly his primary goal, but Willis says he is open to playing overseas if need be.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I just want to get better and be the best player I can be. If I have to take a different avenue for the time being, then I’ll learn what I can and play catch-up. I feel I definitely need to work on my body, so I can guard, like, the bigger fours.”
Willis certainly could have been a different player with more time in the gym training in his first two years, but it’s understandable. He saw a crop of talent in front of him his first two years and didn’t think massive playing time was in his immediate future.
That being said, I think the entire BBN can agree that Willis did more than enough for the Wildcats in his time at Kentucky both on and off the floor.
You can read Tipton’s entire piece here.