Kentucky basketball: Willis aims to remind UK teammates, fans he belongs

broberts@herald-leader.comApril 17, 2013 

  • Derby Festival Classic

    When: Friday, 7 p.m.

    Where: Freedom Hall

    Tickets: $11 and $16. Available through Ticketmaster.com or the Freedom Hall box office.

LOUISVILLE — On two separate occasions this month, six of Derek Willis' future teammates have played in nationally televised all-star games.

Willis wasn't watching.

While the Harrison twins, Julius Randle, Marcus Lee, James Young and Dakari Johnson put in work at the McDonald's All-American Game and then the Jordan Brand Classic, Willis was putting in work behind a deli counter.

Ever since Bullitt East's season ended a few weeks ago, the UK signee has been holding down a part-time job at McAlister's Deli.

Willis probably isn't missing much. The 6-foot-10 forward is well aware of who he'll be playing with next season at Kentucky.

He was the first player to commit to what is now being hailed as the greatest recruiting class of all time. For months, Willis was the only member of that class.

Then Andrew and Aaron Harrison came aboard. In the next two weeks, Young and Lee joined up. After that it was Johnson, Randle, and Kentucky Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins.

No. 1 overall prospect Andrew Wiggins is still out there and undecided. He could very well become a Wildcat in the next few weeks.

As the commitments kept coming, Willis kept fading into the background. "An overlooked recruit," he called himself Wednesday before practicing in preparation for Friday night's Derby Festival Classic in Freedom Hall.

Willis was a top-50 prospect when he committed to the Wildcats way back in January of 2012. Now, he's barely mentioned in conversations about John Calipari's latest recruiting haul.

"I guess, in a way, I have been kind of forgotten," Willis said. "It's all right though. I'm going to show them what I can do. And people — they'll come along."

His high school teammate and fellow Mr. Basketball finalist Rusty Troutman was less diplomatic when discussing the lack of attention surrounding Willis.

"It kind of makes me mad, because I know how good he is and how much potential he really has," Troutman said. "He hasn't really shown any of it, I don't think. He can be a heck of a player with them, and he can compete at that level.

"He doesn't get the credit he deserves."

Count a couple of his future teammates among the believers.

Johnson was asked at the McDonald's game to talk about the other five All-Americans he would be playing alongside at UK. The 7-footer ran down the list, then added, "And also Derek Willis. I think he's really good and underrated."

Hawkins, who is also in the Derby Classic, played against Willis twice this season.

"He's got great talent," he said. "The thing about him is he's so big, and he can shoot the ball great. Not a lot of bigs can shoot as good as he can."

As for those who leave him out, Willis takes the snubs in stride. He said it was "awesome" and "amazing" to be part of such a highly touted group of recruits. He talked about how his peers who played in the McDonald's and Jordan games were deserving of the honors and the attention.

But it's hard to hide the chip on his shoulder.

Willis talked multiple times about competing for a starting spot next season. He said he was looking forward to going up against Randle and Lee in practice.

He's clearly not concerned with the level of competition he'll find in Lexington.

"It's going to be like a typical NBA practice probably," Willis said. "We have so many multi-talented players. It's going to be dog versus dog every play. Whoever doesn't come to practice to play, they're going to be sitting."

Willis sees his role as "similar to Darius Miller," another highly touted Kentuckian who ended up being surrounded by five-star prospects during his time at UK.

Things worked out just fine for Miller. Those who know Willis are expecting a similar end.

"Once he gets there, he's going to pick it up," Troutman said. "Once he plays with big guys, he goes at them and gets physical. He'll be all right."


DERBY FESTIVAL CLASSIC

When: Friday, 7 p.m.

Where: Freedom Hall

Tickets: $11 and $16. Available through Ticketmaster.com or the Freedom Hall box office.

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216 Twitter: @NextCats Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com

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