According to his coach, UK commitment Derek Willis’ recent fall in the recruiting rankings isn’t so much a story of poor play as it is a case of mistaken identity.
Scout.com ranked Willis as the No. 33 player in the class of 2013 when he committed to the Cats back in January. When that same service updated its Top 100 on Tuesday, Willis’ name was nowhere to be found. That follows a recent trend. ESPN has also removed Willis from its list and Rivals.com puts him at No. 95.
Bullitt East coach Troy Barr says the drop in rankings doesn’t mean there’s been a dropoff in Willis’ game.
“He had to play in the post because we didn’t have anybody else with any size,” Barr told Next Cats on Tuesday. “I think a lot of people looked at it like that’s where he’s going to play in college, and that’s not the case. He’s going to be out on the perimeter, because that’s where he’s best.”
At the beginning of last high school season, Bullitt East lost center Elliot Young to an injury. That meant Willis, whose natural position is on the perimeter, was forced inside. He played well but struggled with more physical players. The same thing happened during the recent AAU season, when Willis played on a squad with elite guards D’Angelo Russell and Qunetin Snider. Those two got most of the shots, while Willis was sent back inside to battle it out with bigger players.
It was the perfect recipe for a fall in the rankings.
“That would be like a point guard playing small forward,” Barr said. “He’s not going to get ranked very high if he’s playing out of position. Every coach that recruited him – that’s where they felt like he’s going to play in college. They don’t think he’s an inside player.”
Barr said Young will be back and healthy for Bullitt East this season. He said the team would also have 6-foot-7 sophomore Tyler Bacon to roam the paint. The presence of those two post players will allow Willis to go back to the wing, the position he’ll likely play at UK.
“We feel like Derek’s going to be able to move back to his natural position,” Barr said. “He’s going to be able to take advantage of what teams guard him with. If they guard him with a center, he’s going to take them out on the floor. And if they guard him with a guard, he’s going to go post them up. And I think that’s what’s going to happen in college. He’s going to be a kid that takes advantage of mismatches.”
Internet message boards and Twitter have been buzzing about what Willis’ drop means for his college career. The possibility of UK rescinding the scholarship offer or steering Willis toward another school is commonly mentioned.
Nonsense, says Barr. The high school coach has been in regular contact with the UK staff, particularly assistant Orlando Antigua, and he says he’s been reassured that they want him in Lexington.
“He wants to make sure that we understand they have no concerns,” Barr said of his conversations with Antigua. “I think a lot of people felt like with the drop in ranking UK was going to get off of him. But they’ve made it clear to us that that’s not the case. They’re with him and they’re not concerned about the rankings.
“The coaches at Kentucky … felt like he was a more athletic version of (Kyle) Wiltjer. He’s quicker, handles the ball a littler better, probably defends a little better. Maybe not as good a shooter, but Derek’s still a very good shooter.”
Barr expects Willis to have a “great” senior season once he’s able to move back to his natural position. But he also said there are plenty of things he needs to work on before he can contribute at the college level.
Perimeter defense is Barr’s No. 1 concern. The coach pointed out that Willis will be guarding smaller, quicker players once he gets to UK, and staying with them defensively will be imperative. Rebounding is another area where Barr wants to see improvement this season. He said Willis needs to get stronger, and that means adding 20-25 pounds before he arrives in Lexington.
Scout.com analyst Evan Daniels agrees with that assessment. Daniels called Willis “a talented kid with a lot of skill,” but said the UK commitment needs to get stronger and play with more confidence in the paint.
“I think Derek really needs to put some time in the weight room,” he said. “He has a lot of raw ability and his skill level is high for his size. If he can add some and learn to play through contact he can be a contributor for UK.”
But before Willis makes his way to UK, he has to find his way through the limelight.
Barr has already arranged for two former players who won Kentucky Mr. Basketball honors and played major college basketball to meet with Willis and talk about how to handle the scrutiny of being a high-profile UK recruit, which he’s been dealing with ever since his commitment.
He said Willis is currently working at a grocery store near his home and spends half the time posing for pictures with customers. “But he just seems to roll with it,” Barr said.
All in all, the coach thinks his star player is doing just fine with all the attention.
“I discussed it with him quite a bit during the recruiting process last fall,” Barr said. “We talked about the microscope that committing to UK would put him under. So he was well aware of all of those things. But you still don’t understand it until it hits you in the face. I think he’s still been a little surprised. But he’s handled it very well, very maturely. I’m proud of him.”