With the NBA Draft and decisions about his basketball future fast approaching, Derek Willis finds inspiration in his past. His four years playing for Kentucky include a regret that he intends not to repeat.
Willis wishes he had tried harder as a UK player, put in more time and gotten more out of his college career.
If the basketball gods granted him a Big Blue re-do, Willis said, “I would have stayed around the gym and worked out with (associate coach) Kenny Payne. Starting from my freshman year all the way till I was out of there. That’s one thing I really regret.”
By his own admission, Willis did not maximize the opportunity that being on the Kentucky team presented.
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“I had the wrong approach about it,” he said Wednesday. When practice ended, “I’d just pretty much leave the gym and go with friends and do whatever. I could have spent another hour and worked on really anything. . . . I had the wrong mental approach about it, and I think that’s what held me back.”
An instant later, Willis added, “I held myself back.”
Willis spoke from Miami, the third stop on his preparation for the June 22 NBA Draft and, if undrafted, making the most of his options. Earlier this spring, he worked out in Lexington, then Daytona Beach, Fla.
I had the wrong mental approach about it, and I think that’s what held me back.
Derek Willis, on his practice habits early in his UK career
Willis plans to participate in a “pro day” Sunday in Miami. Representatives from several NBA teams will watch him and other prospects work out, he said.
Then Willis said he has a workout with the Boston Celtics on June 7, then another with the Detroit Pistons the following week.
Willis made this activity sound like a second chance to maximize his basketball potential.
“I’m just really trying to get in the best shape I can right now . . . ,” he said. “It’s kind of my job right now.”
Prompted by a question, Willis wondered about how his UK career might have been different had he put in more time and effort.
“Maybe something would have happened for me earlier,” he said. “Maybe I could have been playing, maybe my freshman year a little bit more.”
Willis, who came to UK from Mount Washington/Bullitt East High School, averaged 2.8 minutes and 1.1 points as a freshman in the 2013-14 season. He took nine shots, and made three.
The next season was similarly nondescript (1.3 points, 3.9 minutes). But given the overflow of talent in the season of the platoons, Willis’ regrets do not extend to 2014-15. “Because that team was crazy,” he said.
Of course, Willis’ emergence as a junior (44.2 percent shooting from three-point range) made him a valuable contributor in 2015-16. As a senior, he doubled his previous assist total and had career highs in steals (25), blocks (39) and rebound average (5.4).
Derek Willis was fifth on the UK team in scoring (7.0 ppg) and second in rebounding (5.4 rpg) as a senior.
The feedback he’s received so far indicates that he should get stronger, improve his conditioning and extend his shooting range to the NBA three-point line.
Though the NBA remains his goal, Willis sounded open to the possibility of playing in Europe or some other continent or the NBA’s development league as an interim step.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I just want to get better and be the best player I can be. If I have to take a different avenue for the time being, then I’ll learn what I can and play catch-up. I feel I definitely need to work on my body, so I can guard, like, the bigger fours.”
That said, Willis added, “I’m cool with being put wherever, though.”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, June 22
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn