Surely, he’s more than a collection of shots, passes, rebounds and steals.
And what should we make of that highly publicized offseason arrest for public intoxication?
Willis put the arrest in the context of self-discovery. “I already knew I had let people down,” he said. In the aftermath, the June arrest reminded him of how being a UK basketball player alters reality.
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“I learned to understand more of who I am and what I represent,” he said, “because, like, I don’t look at myself as a Kentucky basketball player. I look at myself as being a normal person. I have normal ideas.”
But, of course, Kentucky basketball is not normal. By definition, the winningest program in college basketball history with a fan base that delights in its zealotry is not normal.
Like pundit Michael Kinsley saying “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth,” normal for a Kentucky basketball player can be a problem.
“Out in public, when I’m with my friends, they’re like, ‘Come out and do something with us tonight.’ . . . Then I’ll be, ‘I’ve got practice tonight.’ Like they don’t really think I play basketball.”
Willis said he likes being thought of as more than a basketball player. “That’s just how I feel I am,” he said. “There’s more to me than, like, basketball.”
Willis described himself as “relaxed” in his non-basketball time. Then he quickly added, “Not that basketball is not relaxing for me.”
He has a growing number of off-court interests. Politics, for example. The 2016 presidential race commanded his attention.
I learned to understand more of who I am and what I represent because, like, I don’t look at myself as a Kentucky basketball player. I look at myself as being a normal person. I have normal ideas.
Derek Willis, on his offseason arrest
“I’ve been trying to understand politics a little bit more,” he said, “and a lot of how that stuff works. Just a bunch of weird stuff. Like, it’s all interesting to me because I never took the time to sit down and understand anything like that.”
But Willis knows that playing for Kentucky can be a form of typecasting. He has learned that he is synonymous with UK basketball in or out of uniform.
“When I talk to people and they like start to figure out who I am,” he said. “Once the lights come on in a dark place, they’re like, ‘Oh.’
“Your whole perception changes.”
UK Coach John Calipari put Willis’ arrest in Boone County in this context. It showed the “downside” of playing for Kentucky.
“I go back to thinking I’m not a person of public image, like what people think of me,” Willis said. “So (I’ve) just got to understand who I am.”
The on-the-court Willis also remains imprecisely defined, Calipari said.
“Derek Willis has been on a great path right now,” the UK coach said early in the fall semester. “You know, he’s got to sustain it. He can’t have a game, and then say, ‘My body is breaking down.’”
Of the Willis who made such a positive difference for Kentucky last season, Calipari said, “That’s who you are now. Be that guy.”
Willis must make his productive play a habit, Calipari said.
“Then you own that habit,” the UK coach said. “You own who that is. And, obviously, he didn’t own it last year. He played some and did some (good things). And all of a sudden, we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh’ and all of a sudden it wasn’t his anymore. ‘I’m not that guy.’
“He’s got to do it. And I think he’s capable of it.”
To help the process along, Calipari had Willis and freshman Wenyen Gabriel working out with UK’s big men and operating around the basket area. “Just to get them tougher,” the UK coach said.
Willis said he felt better prepared mentally and physically for this season. He’s put 15 more pounds on his wiry frame. He wants to be more than a shooter. He wants to play better defense.
“I would go make shots, but at times I would also give up baskets,” he said of last season. “And it was just like you’re not progressing. . . . At times you don’t need to be out there if you’re not going to defend.”
Derek Willis wants to redefine himself as a better defender.
“Yeah, I need to be,” he said before adding, “I don’t have a choice.”
Meet the Cats
This is the 13th in a series of 14 stories on Kentucky’s 2016-17 men’s basketball players.
Coming next: Tai Wynyard.