Meet the Cats: Willis concedes his goals at UK are more long term

jtipton@herald-leader.comOctober 11, 2013 

Derek Willis was the first prospect from the Class of 2013 to commit to Kentucky. Which is sort of like being the first sardine in the can.

Being from Kentucky, Willis knew what he was getting himself into.

"I knew what they were about, obviously, bringing in a lot of talented players ... and putting them in the NBA," he said. "I don't think I'm that kind of player yet, but I'm going to get there. But I wanted to get on that train as soon as I could."

The word "yet" echoed as Willis completed his thought. When asked what he had to do to get off the Kentucky train at an NBA stop, Willis noted the then 201 pounds he lightly packed on a 6-foot-9 frame.

"I just have to get my body in that shape of a Julius Randle, even like a Marcus Lee," he said. "Marcus Lee is in better shape (than people think). He's more muscular than people give him credit for.

"Just overall improve my body, as well as working on basketball."

With a goal of reaching 220 pounds by the end of this season, Willis cited another long and lean player as his role model: Kevin Durant.

"I just sort of liked how my frame kind of matched how his body was and how he played," he said. Willis saw himself, like Durant, as a power forward who could score from the perimeter as well as do business around the basket.

It should be noted the Oklahoma City Thunder list Durant, who is 6-9, as weighing 240 pounds.

Kentucky was the second school that got a commitment from Willis. He originally committed to Purdue.

"At the time, I was 15," he said. "I think it was after my sophomore year in the summer. It was just the first school to offer me and I didn't want to pass that opportunity up: to play college basketball and have a scholarship."

As his high school career blossomed and the possibility of playing for Kentucky improved, Willis struggled with the task of de-committing from Purdue.

"I'm that kind of person where I don't want to let anybody down," he said. "I want everybody to be kind of fine with everything. It was a really tough decision. ... There were some nights I didn't go to sleep. Literally didn't go to sleep. I'd lie in bed and think about it."

Ultimately, Willis worked up the courage to tell Purdue Coach Matt Painter that he wanted to re-open the recruiting process. He knows his commitment to Kentucky means two adjustments: from high school to college and from main man to role player. The immediacy of being depended upon to score, rebound and be a presence gives way to a long-term goal of being NBA ready.

Of not being perceived as a contributor for UK this season, Willis said, "It's fine. I didn't come here to start. Freshmen coming in mostly do not start. They give them a year or two to develop."

Huh? That's not how Kentucky often operates.

"It's definitely different here," Willis conceded. "I'm going to support the team every way I can, and do what Coach (John) Calipari wants me to do."

This is the 10th in a series of stories on each of the 16 UK men's basketball players leading up to Big Blue Madness on Oct. 18.

Coming Sunday: Willie Cauley-Stein and Tod Lanter

Derek Willis

Uniform number: 35

Height, weight: 6-9, 205

Position: Forward

Class: Freshman

Hometown: Mount Washington, Ky.

High school: Bullitt East

Twitter: @derek_willis33

Online: Watch a video interview with Derek Willis.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog:

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