LEXINGTON, Ky. — Derek Willis is more mature and in the best shape he’s ever been in, coach John Calipari said Thursday.
The Mount Washington, Ky., native played in 32 games with 11 starts last season after sparse minutes in his first two years. Willis, one of three Kentucky seniors, looks poised to play more this season and Calipari said it’s a credit to his work ethic.
“He’s stays after every practice,” Calipari said Thursday afternoon. “He and Bam (Adebayo) are the last two in there with Isaiah (Briscoe) and sometimes Malik (Monk). But they’re the last two in there.”
Wills can stretch the floor with his 6-foot-9 frame and shooting ability. He shot 44 percent from behind the three-point line and could see significant minutes at small forward and power forward depending on how big Calipari wants to go.
Speed has become the identity of this year’s Kentucky teams with a backcourt trio of Briscoe, Monk and freshman De’Aaron Fox. Calipari said Willis will have no problem running the floor with them.
“When he’s flying now — just think about it: you got all these guards flying, him flying, Bam flying — you better run back,” Calipari said. “Like, don’t try to offensive rebound because we’re five — it’s like a wave of people, like, ‘What?’”
Calipari hasn’t made clear what starting five he’ll go with as Kentucky opens its season at 7 p.m. Friday against Stephen F. Austin. Willis will have an important role no matter if it’s starting or off the bench. On a team where the biggest question might be outside shooting, Willis could be its best long-range weapon.
But his coach seemed most pleased with Willis’ maturity.
The senior approached Calipari in a recent practice to remind his coach of something the Wildcats did in their zone offense last year that they weren’t doing this year. Calipari changed it up and thanked Willis.
“But he would never have done that,” Calipari said. “Like, that just shows you he’s maturing, that he’s able to trust enough to know, ‘I can give a suggestion and it’s not going to be thrown at me.’”