Ex-Cats

Former Cats make USA Basketball roster for two televised World Cup qualifiers

Former Kentucky player Derek Willis, now playing for the Grand Rapids Drive in the NBA G-League, was recently called up to play for USA Basketball in this weekend’s FIBA World Cup qualifiers.
Former Kentucky player Derek Willis, now playing for the Grand Rapids Drive in the NBA G-League, was recently called up to play for USA Basketball in this weekend’s FIBA World Cup qualifiers. AP

Derek Willis and Aaron Harrison, two former Kentucky standouts now playing in the NBA’s G League, have been selected to represent USA Basketball in the upcoming FIBA World Cup qualifier games this week.

Willis, who returned to Rupp Arena last weekend to take in the Alabama game along with some other former Cats during the NBA All-Star break, is averaging 11.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in 33 games for the Grand Rapids Drive.

The 6-foot-9 forward was informed of his call-up after the Drive’s practice Tuesday, according to a report on Mlive.com by Peter J. Wallner. Willis had been invited to try out for USA Basketball last year, but did not make the cut in its August camp.

“I’m glad to be going,” Willis said. “I think it shows I’ve improved this year and that it’s been seen and they want me on the team. I’m excited about it.”

Harrison, who has seen a few games in the NBA with the Charlotte Hornets as recently as last season, is averaging 17.3 points per game for the Reno Bighorns. He scored 13 points in the G-League’s International Challenge Game last week.

They will be part of a 12-man all G-League World Cup qualifying squad coached by Jeff Van Gundy beginning Friday at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Two of the games will be broadcast on ESPN networks. The USA, which is in first place in qualifying Group C with a 2-0 record, will take on Cuba at 11 p.m. EST Friday on ESPNU. On Monday, the USA will play Puerto Rico at 11 p.m. EST on ESPN2.

This weekend’s games are part of the first round of qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, which will be held in China. Another set of games in this round is scheduled for June. The top three teams from the first round advance to the second round of qualifiers that will begin play later this year.

Van Gundy coached the USA team in its November qualifiers and led it to a 5-0 record and a gold medal in the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup.

During Willis’ visit to Rupp on Saturday, he did not varnish his opinion of how hard it has been to make his way in the G-League this season during an interview over the arena’s PA system with Ravi Moss.

“It’s a grind. The G-League sucks, but I’m OK with it right now,” Willis said.

Regardless, he’s been able to carve out some success playing 27.7 minutes per game with 26 starts. In a Grand Rapids introduction piece on Willis in December, the former UK payer said, “Here with the Drive, I’m really enjoying myself. I feel like everyone’s goal is to play in the NBA, mine’s to play in the NBA, but obviously, this year, though with my current position with the Drive, I want to win, make the playoffs and, obviously, win the whole thing.”

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