LEXINGTON, Ky. – Derek Willis thought his biggest concern of the offseason was going to be fixing his defense. Then he was arrested for public intoxication in June, an embarrassing video of the incident surfaced and Kentucky’s senior forward learned a far more important lesson than how to stay in front of his man.
“It was kind of a slap in the face,” Willis said. “Like, ‘Look, you need to refocus yourself.’ And, ‘What’s really important to you? Because this is your last year and you have a lot of really good opportunities.’ This is a setback – it’s not good for my image – but I’ve just learned a lot from it and it’s helped me grow as a person.”
Wildcats coach John Calipari, who declined to describe Willis’ punishment with the team but said he will not miss any games this season, said that “Derek knows that he’s under a different eye now.” Willis, though, has come to realize he always was viewed differently than most college students because he plays for perhaps the most-scrutinized basketball program in the country.
News outlets probably would not have requested footage of a regular student who’d passed out in the road next to his open driver’s side door.
“People who really know me and know what kind of person I am are like, ‘Look, we’ve all made mistakes – stuff happens – but you need to … understand who you are,’ ” Willis said. “Like, ‘We know you think of yourself like a normal person and this stuff shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is.’ ”
Willis is no normal person. He’s a 6-foot-9 power forward with a 7-foot wingspan who led the SEC in 3-point percentage during conference play last season, hitting half his shots from deep. After two seasons glued to the bench, the Louisville native enjoyed a breakout junior year, starting 11 games and averaging 9.7 points and 5.1 rebounds against conference competition.
He’d totaled just 25 points and 14 rebounds as a sophomore, then dropped 18 and 12 on Missouri last season – and 25 and 5 on Tennessee — hitting a combined 11 of 16 threes in those two eye-opening performances. Willis became a go-to guy, making the summer arrest all the more disappointing.
“He knows he’s a better guy than that,” said senior guard Dominique Hawkins, his roommate their entire careers at Kentucky. “I know that in his heart he was upset about it. He definitely turned it up a notch (after the arrest). In pick-up games, he’s been shooting the lights out. He’s gained a lot of weight. He looks like he’s really strong. He knows one of his weaknesses was defense and he’s been working on that.”
With off-the-court troubles behind him, Willis turned his attention to packing on 15 pounds this offseason and is now listed at 228. He believes that, and an accompanying boost in lower-body strength, will be a key to improving on defense, where he was admittedly atrocious at times last year.
“You get lower,” Willis said. “Playing lower, your reactions are quicker. You play the game standing up, you’re going to get pushed around. You’re weak, and it ain’t gonna look good.”
He’s been there before.
Willis sat slumped in his locker after Kentucky was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament back in March. He knew his defensive performance – or lack thereof, which had been repeatedly called out by Calipari – hurt the Wildcats.
“It’s just a simple fact: if you’re hitting all these shots, that’s fine, but when you’re coming down on the other end and giving up a shot, it’s a plus-minus thing. If you’re even, he can’t play you. It’s just logic,” Willis said. “With defense, it’s half you have to have the heart – just like, ‘You’re not going to score’ – and the other aspect is just conditioning. I know I have the heart to do it. I know I can play defense.”
Now he has the body to get it done. At least that’s the hope in Lexington.
With Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray in the NBA now, Willis is Kentucky’s most dependable 3-point threat. The team needs to know it can count on him both ways.
So far, so good. Calipari said Willis looked like a shot-blocking force this summer and “has been on a great path.” But the coach was careful not to get carried away.
“He’s got to sustain it. He can’t have a (great) game and then say, ‘My body is breaking down,’ ” which happened last year, as Willis repeatedly complained of nagging aches and pains. “Just play the season. Go do what you did in the middle. That’s who you are now. Be that guy.
“He’s got to prove to all of us that this is who he is – not that other guy.”
Do that and Willis might even have hope of a future in the NBA, his coach said. And Calipari would know, having coached 28 draft picks in seven seasons at Kentucky. It’s a long shot, but not totally unreasonable to think a guy with his size, shooting ability and a 36-inch vertical could get a look.
Draft Express ranks Willis the No. 50 senior in the country entering the 2016-17 season.
“I really think both Dom and Derek will get an opportunity,” Calipari said. “The experience here, the habits developed. You think about the guys those guys played against. Come on. I mean, you just spent four years against those kind of players. You’re going to go work out for an NBA team and say, ‘Shit, I played against all these guys in practice every day.’ Not 12 times a year. In practice every day.”
Those practices can be brutal, but after the summer he had, Willis is happy to be back in them.