Among the eight star-studded players Kentucky signed in its latest No. 1 national recruiting class, perhaps the least-expected subject of presason praise was a three-star prospect from Mt. Washington, Ky.
Derek Willis, a wiry 6-foot-9 forward, did not step onto campus in Lexington with the same sort of accolades that most of his teammates garnered. He does not have the status of "McDonald’s All-American" etched next to his bio in the UK media guide. He was not even recognized as “Mr. Basketball” in the Bluegrass State, conceding that honor to UK teammate Dominique Hawkins.
While he was not expected to be a major contributor in his first year on campus, Willis is collecting as much buzz as any of his highly-celebrated teammates leading up to the start of the 2013-2014 season.
After watching Willis score 21 points and go 5-for-6 from 3-point range in Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage, UK head coach John Calipari was asked if he realized Willis was as good as he looked.
"He didn’t know how good he was," Calipari said. "He’s playing in the best shape he’s ever been in. He's more physical than he’s ever been. He’s driving balls through bumps, which I’d never seen him do.
“So I think he’s better than he thought. I see him better than I thought, and it’s good for us.”
“Practice definitely carried over into the game. I was shooting well,” Willis said of his eye-opening performance at Rupp Arena. “It was a scrimmage, but I feel like I showed people what I could do, and I had fun.”
Turning in an impressive night like that has Big Blue fans wondering if Willis will indeed work his way into the rotation during his freshman campaign. Calipari said it is definitely something to consider with the new season just days away.
“We’ll have to figure it out as we go," Calipari said. "He’s deserving of playing time, but there are a lot of guys deserving of playing time. Now we’ve just got to figure out how it all lays out. The great news is, everybody’s challenged."
When Willis announced his commitment to UK in January 2012, he was widely considered a Top 50 prospect. He had scholarship offers from programs like UK, Louisville and Indiana, among others. However, his ranking dropped the following summer due, in part, to the lack of exposure with his local AAU team.
“The rankings were what they were. It felt good to be highly ranked, but I was still the same player,” Willis said. “My work ethic has changed. I’m doing a lot more stuff and I’ve just grown as a basketball player.”
Willis's talent has caught the attention of his UK teammates.
“I remember in high school, my team played in the same tournament as his and I saw the skill there,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said. “He’s a real good player, and I saw it then, so I wasn’t really surprised.”
On Friday, Willis and his teammates will have their first opportunity to earn their spots in the rotation against outside competition. The Wildcats will play host to cross-town Transylvania University in the first exhibition of the season. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET at Rupp Arena.