UK Recruiting

Bullitt East star Willis to reveal college choice Friday

Derek Willis, a junior at Bullitt East, helped lead the Chargers to the state semifinals last season. Purdue was his second choice after UK.
Derek Willis, a junior at Bullitt East, helped lead the Chargers to the state semifinals last season. Purdue was his second choice after UK.

It's a startling sight when Bullitt East's 6-foot-9 junior Derek Willis, with a wingspan of a pterodactyl, swoops down the basketball court.

"When you watch him dribble up the floor and people try to stop him, turn him or trap him, and he splits them by going behind his back or between his legs, and he's moving those size-18 shoes so quick, it's phenomenal to see," Chargers Coach Troy Barr said.

In short, the long, angular Willis has freakish skills, including long-range shooting.

"It's weird, almost," Willis said. "People want to front you in the post, then when you step out on the perimeter and start pulling threes on 'em, it's unexpected."

What's not unexpected is that Willis is a big-time college prospect. Purdue saw his potential when he was a 15-year-old sophomore, offered him a scholarship and got a commitment last April.

But after Willis had a breakout summer in AAU ball, his stock went through the gym roof. He de-committed from Purdue in August, and instantly became a hot recruiting target. Kentucky, Louisville and Indiana soon offered, while Purdue stayed in the picture.

Willis, rated the No. 23 prospect in the nation by Rivals.com and No. 33 by Scout.com, said the recruiting process has been "very stressful" and "sometimes annoying."

But it's had its perks, too.

He was in IU's Assembly Hall when the Hoosiers upset then-No. 1 UK on a last-second three-pointer.

"Awesome atmosphere," Willis said. "It was crazy."

He was in Rupp Arena for UK victories over North Carolina and Louisville.

"Pretty unreal, too," he said of the Cats' win over the Tar Heels.

He described the UK-U of L battle as "a lot of fun."

Willis pared his list of colleges to two a month ago — he hasn't said which two, but it appears that UK was one of them — and he made his final choice about 10 days ago. He'll announce his decision Friday afternoon.

"You could tell the last couple of weeks that he was ready to get this over with," Barr said. "He wanted to wait until next fall to announce, but it's all too much. He knows where he wants to go, so it's best for everybody to go ahead and do it."

There is no shortage of babble on radio talk shows and Internet message boards saying Willis is headed to UK. But Del Willis, Derek's father and a lifelong U of L fan, said early this week that only a few people, including his immediate family and Bullitt East's coaches, really know.

What everybody does know is that Willis has a rare skill set for a 6-9 guy.

As a sophomore, he played mostly on the perimeter while 6-7, 220-pound senior Corey Washburn banged inside. Willis shot better than 40 percent from three-point range and averaged 13.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots to help Bullitt East reach the Sweet Sixteen semifinals. He totaled 26 points, 31 rebounds and 17 blocked shots in three games in Rupp Arena.

This season, with Washburn gone, Willis has occupied the low post more, but he still spends time firing up threes from as deep as 25 feet. He's averaging 17 points (hitting 37 percent on threes), 11 rebounds and six blocks for the No. 5 Chargers. He had a triple-double (16 points, 13 rebounds, 11 swats) in a win over Jeffersontown.

"I like the perimeter better, but I'm kind of forced to stay inside more this year," he said. "That's OK. All I really care about is if we win."

Willis is notably unselfish.

"He doesn't play with any ego out there," his dad said. "If he wanted, he could average 30 points a game. But his team wouldn't be as successful, and I guarantee you the fans at Bullitt East wouldn't appreciate his play as much.

"When he has to, he can turn on his game and can't be stopped."

Barr said the slender (195-pound) Willis still has to develop a solid inside game. "Physically, he's not ready for that style of play. He needs to put on 20 pounds. But he's got some nice moves. He's got a little baby hook he's added. He's polishing and working on his game."

Barr says Willis has a huge upside not only because of his varied skills, but also because of his age. He won't turn 17 until late June. "When you look at these other kids in the top 10, 20 or 30 in the country, most of them are 18 turning 19 in their senior year," Barr said. "Derek won't turn 19 until he's a sophomore in college.

"He's probably about eight months behind most kids in his class age-wise, and eight months at that age can mean 10 to 15 pounds."

Rick Bolus, who runs High Potential Recruiting Service and has been evaluating Kentucky high school talent for 39 years, is high on Willis.

"The thing I like best about him is his shooting ability from downtown," Bolus said. "He puts the ball on the floor extremely well for his size, he's unselfish and he gets the ball to the open player. He'll be an ideal wing-forward in college."

Willis will let everybody know which college that will be on Friday.

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