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October 31, 2013
Willis hoping to find his way into Kentucky's rotation
Derek Willis mostly was a spectator.
"Every position was full almost," Willis. "And whenever we'd switch off, that position would be filled. We had a lot of players to play."
So Willis waited.
Now, he's hoping to get in the game. And not just when No. 1 Kentucky opens its exhibition season Friday night against Transylvania. After a 21-point performance in the Wildcats' Blue-White Scrimmage on Tuesday and a strong start to practice, the 6-foot-9, 205-pound Willis is thinking he might get some minutes this season from coach John Calipari.
"I think Cal's expectations definitely changed for me," Willis said. "He didn't know how good I was, and he said that himself. So I feel like I might be able to fit myself within the rotation doing whatever."
So far, he's shown a knack for knocking down shots - Willis was 5 for 6 from three-point range in the Blue-White scrimmage -- and the ability to put the ball on the floor.
"He didn't know how good he was," Calipari said. "He's playing in the best shape he's ever been in, he's more physical than he's ever been. He's driving balls through bumps, which I'd never seen him do. And he's not shooting bailout threes, like, 'I'm just going to come down and jack this one.' He's playing within how we're playing."
And he's playing surprisingly well.
Well, sort of surprisingly.
At one point, Willis was a Top 30 national prospect in the high school Class of 2013. But a bad summer before his senior season cost him, and he took a dip in the Rivals150, dropping to No. 115.
But Willis said he always was "the same player" who climbed into the upper reaches of the rankings. He works a little harder, though, and he's honed a few skills.
Willis put on "10 or 11 pounds," he said, and he'd play offseason pickup games in which he only allowed himself to shoot bank shots, or only let himself take shots right at the rim.
Challenging himself that way helped prepare him for Kentucky practices in which he'd be challenged as he hadn't before. His performance there is showing others that he belongs.
Willis never doubted it.
"No, no," he said. "I always had confidence in my game. But there's a lot of talent here, and I'm just trying to find the place where I fit in."
Going into the season the odds were that he didn't. At least not this season. Even with his high school pedigree - he averaged 18 points and 9.3 rebounds as a senior at Bullitt East and was a Kentucky Mr. Basketball finalist -- Willis routinely was written off as the 12th man on a stocked roster.
And for most of the summer, it seemed he was exactly that.
Then came the fall, and Willis' rise.
"The first couple days of practice, he really was fitting well in the offense," teammate Dakari Johnson said. "He was shooting really good. He's just fearless. He tries new things each and every day, and he has great confidence."
And, Calipari said, "no conscience whatsoever."
"Yeah, I'll shoot from wherever," Willis said.
He did that in the Blue-White Scrimmage, firing at will from long range, his final three-pointer from well beyond the NBA line. That range likely came as a surprise to some. Willis is getting used to exceeding expectations.
Still, he knows minutes will be hard to come by this season. Calipari has said he'll limit his rotation, likely won't find room for 10 or 11 players to get clock. There might be a role for Willis as a spot-up shooter, but that's to be determined.
Willis is willing to wait for his role to be defined.
Unlike some of his teammates, he can afford to be patient. He's hardly a candidate to be one-and-done at Kentucky. The expectation is that he'll have a longer career at UK, and Calipari isn't sure if even Willis knows how productive it can be.
"I think Cal sees something down the road that I don't see yet," Willis said. "Right now I'm just trying to enjoy basketball, and I am. I'm just trying to get better every day and just do the normal stuff."
"It's a bone bruise, and he's got to take time," Calipari said earlier. "And right now it's good because (shooting guard) Aaron's playing point."