After an unprecedented seven players declared for the draft after a Final Four loss to Wisconsin it’s easy to get caught up in worrying about next year’s team. Let’s instead take a look at the returning players who are set to have a big year next season. A couple weeks ago I covered Marcus Lee and now next up in the, Their Time to Shine series: Derek Willis.
The first commitment of the 2013 recruiting class that brought Kentucky the Twins, Julius Randle, James Young, Marcus Lee, and Dakari Johnson, was Derek Willis. He has been patiently waiting his turn as he has been somewhat overshadowed by remarkable recruiting classes and unexpected returnees. This year, it looks like Willis will finally get his chance.
A graduate of Bullitt East High School, just south of Louisville, Willis was the number one player in Kentucky coming out of high school. However, playing time wasn’t immediately in the cards. Willis was behind several McDonald’s All-Americans in the rotation who were supposed to be one-and-done players. In the 2013-2014 season, Willis got 39 minutes of playing time and scored 16 points.
When the Twins, Dakari, Poythress, and Cauley-Stein decided to return for another season, Willis’ prospects for his second season didn’t look much brighter. On a team filled to the brim with talent, mostly unexpected, many wondered if Willis was going to get any more playing time than he got the previous season. However, he practically doubled his playing time from 39 minutes to 75 minutes and scored 25 points.
For an athlete who led his high school team to two region championships in a row, a state sweet sixteen and a state final four, Willis was used to a playing a lot of minutes. So, receiving limited playing time the last two years began to takes its toll. In January, Willis admitted that he had “fallen out with the game” but that it wouldn’t affect his future at Kentucky and that he needed to spend additional time in the gym so he could get more playing time.
In response to the fans and media who consistently questioned his decision to not utilize Willis more, Coach Calipari continued to ensure that he will have his opportunity. Even Tony Barbee, a new permanent addition to the coaching staff at Kentucky, knows that Willis will have his chance. “Derek will have an opportunity to compete for minutes. And what he brings to the floor with his size, athleticism, versatility, his ability to stretch the floor with his shooting, he’s going to have an opportunity to be in the mix,” said Barbee.
While we haven’t seen much of what Willis can do during games, we know that he can shoot from behind the three point line. He’s also athletic, a terrific passer, and can use his size to be a great perimeter player along side Charles Matthews next season. His ability to shoot will come in handy next year with the departure of Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker, this past season’s best shooters. Plus, his 6’9 stature will add great size to the roster which lost a lot of big guys to the NBA this season.
Next year has the chance to be Willis’ breakout year. With seven key players declaring for the NBA Draft, there is a good portion of minutes up for grabs that just weren’t available last year with nine All-Americans on the roster. But, whether that happens is up to Derek Willis himself. Will he put in the necessary work to be an integral part of the rotation? This team can still be great without Derek Willis. But, this team could go to another level if Derek Willis plays with the confidence he showed during the Big Blue Bahamas tour last summer. I know the #BBN would love for a Kentucky boy to help lead Kentucky to perhaps an unexpected run to the Final Four in 2016.