After two seasons of playing sparingly on teams loaded with front court talent, Kentucky junior forward Derek Willis entered practice this fall with hopes of earning more playing time. While that goal is still a reachable one, Willis will be playing catch-up thanks to a finger injury (left hand) suffered during practice Saturday.
According to the school Willis will be sidelined for two weeks as a result of the injury, and he’s the second Wildcat to get hurt this fall. Guard Dominique Hawkins will miss four weeks after undergoing surgery to repair his broken right hand earlier this week. Also of note for Willis is that he’ll miss out on the team’s open practice Sunday, which will be broadcast nationally and be attended by many NBA scouts and executives.
While his draft prospects may not be on par with those of a Skal Labissiere or Jamal Murray, it would have been a nice showcase for a player who didn’t get to play very much the last two years.
“I’m happy that it’s not something that will keep Derek out very long, but I’m disappointed because I really wanted him to participate in tomorrow’s open practice,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said in the release. “It’s nothing serious and he will be back in a couple weeks, but I’m disappointed for him because he had been doing so well. He deserved to show his stuff tomorrow. He’s made great strides and will bounce back from this.”
Kentucky is going to dunk a lot this season. That was made clear during the six games the Wildcats played in the Bahamas this past August. Exhibition opponents, Pikeville (Kentucky) and Georgetown (Kentucky), can attest to that as well.
Here is the video evidence, courtesy of Wildcat Dunks, a YouTube account that has been around since January 2013, but has put in work the last three months, serving as a warmup for more highlights to come over the course of the next five and a half months.
Although, this video does not include Alex Poythress dunking over the 7-foot Dakari Johnson, or Poythress and the Harrison twins throwing down back-to-back-to-back windmill dunks.
With the Harrison twins announcing Friday that they’ll be returning to Kentucky for the 2014-15 season, John Calipari’s cupboard heading into next season is anything but bare. With nine McDonald’s All-Americans on next season’s roster, the Wildcats have as many as any team in the NBA according to a count done by Yahoo Sports.
And with all of that talent, there have been questions from the outside with regards to players who didn’t see much playing time in 2013-14.
One of those players is rising sophomore forward Derek Willis. A native of Kentucky, Willis played in only 14 of the Wildcats’ 40 games and averaged 2.8 minutes per contest. And with the surplus of front court talent returning to Lexington (not to mention incoming freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles), the climb for more minutes will be an uphill one for Willis this offseason.
And with that being the case, there was a rumor that Willis was considering a transfer in search for more playing time. However in separate stories both Willis’ father and high school coach shot down those rumors, with the former telling Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio that Derek wants to continue to work in hopes of earning more playing time next season.
Derek knows he has to work hard in the off-season and knows with the Harrison twins and everyone coming back that playing time will be tough. But he believes he can earn it. He just wants to work hard in the off-season, and he knows his time is coming.
With the current climate of college basketball being such that many expect a player to automatically leave at the first sign of adversity (limited minutes, not enough “touches,” etc.), it’s refreshing to have this kind of story come out. Sure the process of earning more playing time will be difficult for Willis, but at the very least the daily competition in practice will only help him in the long run.
And as we saw with performances of Marcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins in Kentucky’s Elite Eight victory over Michigan, it’s important for seldom-used players to remain ready both mentally and physically. Because for as daunting as the depth chart may look, one can never truly predict when their name will be called.