LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Breaking out as an offensive contributor has spurred Kentucky forward Derek Willis to want to have the same impact on the defensive end.
Lost in the shuffle for two years behind a parade of future NBA draft picks, the 6-foot-9 Willis earned his way into Kentucky’s rotation as a junior and finally showed the talent that coach John Calipari had insisted was always there.
Willis is a projected starter as the second-ranked Wildcats open Friday night against Stephen F. Austin with another roster of young talent. The confidence in his shooting during the preseason – along with a willingness to fight for rebounds – figures to make him a part of Calipari’s developing rotations.
“I feel like I really know my role, and there are things I still need to work on,” said Willis, who averaged career bests of 7.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 18.6 minutes with 11 starts last season. “Once I figure this out, I’ll help this team out even more than I have.”
Willis seems self-assured enough to turn heads in practice with intense play and even offer a suggestion to Calipari.
Calipari recalled a moment when Willis reminded him of something he wasn’t doing in the zone offense, a point the coach acknowledged before changing the play and thanking him.
“Last year, he would never have done that,” Calipari said. “That just shows you he’s maturing, that he’s able to trust enough that he can give a suggestion and know it’s not going to be thrown (back) at me.”
Having established himself as a perimeter threat – he ranked third on the team with 53 3-pointers on 44 percent shooting – the Mt. Washington, Kentucky, native appears comfortable inside. He’s going harder at the rim on both ends and contesting shots more along with diving for loose balls.
“He’s coming in and just fighting for everything,” 6-10 redshirt freshman forward Tai Wynyard said.
Willis’ growing confidence has been most evident in the way he has challenged defenders and shooters and given them a hard look after a physical play.
“That’s how I’ve needed to play,” Willis said, referring to a summer of studying video of his play. “I can stretch the court, but rebounding and just playing defense and making sure my guy doesn’t score more than me is important.”
Willis’ focus on defense is important as Calipari teaches the finer points of that aspect to on frontcourt newcomers Bam Adebayo and Sacha Killeya-Jones – both 6-10- and 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel. After lacking a physical post game last season , Calipari has made that a point this season and is depending on veterans such as Willis to set the tone.
Wynyard praised the senior’s mental preparation, which might be even more critical with a season-opening stretch of three games in five days, including Tuesday’s matchup against No. 12 Michigan State in New York City. As Kentucky’s freshmen learn to play together and prepare for the first of many marquee non-conference games, they will look to Willis, fellow senior Dominique Hawkins and sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe for guidance.
All have embraced the responsibility with Willis in particular pulling teammates together for huddles. He sees that as a natural role for a veteran, especially since he has personal examples to draw from.
“Even last year, I could see that role developing for me,” Willis said. “So now, wherever I’m needed, I’m talking.”
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