Derek Willis was the first of John Calipari’s much-celebrated class of 2013 commitments, announcing his UK intentions way back in January.
On Wednesday, Willis made that pledge official by signing with Kentucky during a ceremony at Bullitt East High School.
“He’s really excited,” Bullitt East Coach Troy Barr told the Herald-Leader. “He knows that they’re going to have a chance at a national championship next season, and he can be a part of that. He’s excited about coming down there and getting to work.”
First, Willis will try to lead the Chargers back to the Sweet Sixteen.
Barr said his star player has put on 10-15 pounds and has gotten a lot stronger over the summer, which included a trip to Germany with a U.S. junior team but also a largely disappointing AAU showing.
Willis has played much of the last 12 months out of position, being counted on to perform in the post instead of his natural spot on the perimeter. Barr said he expects the future Cat to play a lot more away from the basket during his senior season.
“Derek is not a smash-mouth, physical basketball player,” Barr said. “He’s more of a gazelle-type player. He likes be out on the floor and put his face to the basket and put the ball on the floor. He’s an excellent passer and I think that just suits him better to be at that position.”
Playing in the post proved to be a drag not only on Willis’ game, but his standing in recruiting circles.
A unanimous top-50 player when he committed to Kentucky, the 6-foot-9 forward saw his stock drop throughout the spring and summer. At the moment, he’s ranked No. 129 in the class by Rivals.com, and is unranked on the Scout.com and ESPN lists.
“I don’t think he pays a lot of attention to it,” Barr said. “Once he committed to Kentucky and knew he was going, he didn’t really care about what he was ranked. I’m not sure he cared that much to begin with. It’s fun to talk about for me and you and the people who read the newspapers and magazines. I think some kids get caught up in it, but he’s not one of them.”
Barr said the two weeks in Germany and a turnaround trip to Las Vegas for other basketball activities took a toll on Willis, who also abandoned part of his AAU schedule in order to concentrate on adding weight to his somewhat-slender frame.
But the Bullitt East coach also found some positives in Willis’ off-season experience.
“He played against a lot of European teams over there (in Germany), and Derek’s more of a European-type player,” Barr said. “He’s a big with a lot of up-the-court skills that can play out on the perimeter. I think it was good for him to see that style of basketball with those types of teams.”
Willis had to sit out three weeks earlier this fall with a sprained ankle, but Barr estimated him to be at about 95 percent and said “he’ll be fine when the season starts” on Nov. 26 against Lafayette.
Willis will make his first appearance in Lexington on Nov. 29 when Bullitt East takes on Henry Clay at Tates Creek High School. The Wildcats are scheduled to play at Notre Dame that night, so John Calipari won’t get to check in on his future player.
But Barr already has an idea of what the UK coach is hoping to see from Willis.
“I think just getting stronger, being more aggressive and not settling for jump shots,” he said. “They want him attacking the rim a little bit more. I think they like people slashing to the rim and creating for themselves and their teammates.”