It was media day, 2014 and reporters closed in on Derek Willis. He was a new sophomore forward on the Kentucky basketball team, a guy who had played only 39 minutes the year before and hadn’t shown many skills that suggested he would command more in the upcoming season.
Besides, this was a Kentucky team that was beyond loaded. There was so much talent on the roster that coach John Calipari, during his time that day before the cameras, was forced to use the “P” word: “platoon”.
So the ink-stained wretches gathered around Willis, one of only four scholarship Kentucky kids on the team, prodding and probing. Would he be on one of the two five-man units to get major playing time? Some were privately surprised he’d come back for another try, assuming Willis would see the writing on the locker room wall and head elsewhere in search of more meaningful minutes.
They tiptoed and danced around the subject, trying to coax Willis into explaining himself. Finally, the Mount Washington native raised a big hand to his face and rubbed it, as though he’d just awakened from a bad dream. Then he spoke of a good dream: “I’m just trying to win a national championship.”
End of discussion.
With that simple utterance, Willis assured reporters that: A.) He still considered himself a viable part of the team and B.) His goal was the same as everyone else’s.
That team nearly did claim a title, winning 38 straight before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four. Willis doubled his playing time, but still the minutes total was tiny. He was never much more than an afterthought during the bushel of blowouts the Wildcats amassed.
But then came the annual occurrence, like the swallows returning to Capistrano: Wildcats flocking to the NBA draft, leaving copious amounts of playing time in their wake. Derek Willis remained behind, ready to soak it up.
Once Calipari stopped trying to pigeonhole Willis into the standard power forward role (rebound, bang, score on the occasional putback), the third-year player blossomed. He was what’s chic to call a “stretch four”, a power forward with small forward skills who can step out and shoot. And as he did that, Willis stretched the floor as well, creating spaces for his teammates.
“I feel like I did what nobody else in the nation did and that was open up the floor,” Willis said recently. “You have a power forward you can’t leave open. It was good offensively for us. It opened us up really well.”
So well, in fact, that Willis has gone from bench ornament–someone who draws cheers from sympathetic fans just by shedding his warmups in the closing seconds of a blowout–to a vital part of Kentucky’s offense. Perhaps the only consistent shooter on the squad.
He’s also become, it seems, a student of the game, offering suggestions in practice and helping younger players. This from the guy who, during his freshman year, would disappear the moment practice was over in a Derek Willis-sized puff of vapor.
“He’s the first one at practice, and he’s the last one to leave,” said Calipari. “That went from, I blow the whistle, we’re done with practice, and he would run to the door. And I would say, ‘Derek, can I talk to you guys first before you leave?’ Now, he’s on a mission.”
It’s the same mission he was on those two years ago, when he wearily put a stop to the questioning with the mention of a national title. Only now, he sees himself right in the middle of it.
Freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, along with veteran Isaiah Briscoe, will force opposing defenses to close ranks. “They’re going to be beating people off the dribble left and right,” creating wide open looks for him, Willis said. “We’ll have a really good team this year. I think we could take it all.”
He’s working harder on defense, knowing that’s the key to staying on the floor, the senior among the newbies. And after a taste of productivity last season, Willis is thinking beyond the end of this year.
“It put me in perspective of where I can go with basketball,” he said. “Hopefully, I have a pro career.”
Perhaps. But first, he’s trying to win a national championship.