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Meet the Wildcats: Willis proud he led heralded Kentucky recruiting train

A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Throughout the summer, CoachCal.com will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. Next up is Derek Willis. 

Derek Willis has a confession to make: He grew up a Louisville fan.

Born and raised just outside the Derby City, it was only natural for Willis to turn to the Cardinals. His parents grew up U of L fans, so he became one. He wore red and got into arguments with his Kentucky friends when Louisville played the Wildcats.

“We weren’t like diehard, like it’s U of L or nothing else … but yeah, we were Louisville fans – or I was growing up,” Willis said.

Now, Willis is a Kentucky Wildcat. The first signee of the star-studded 2013 recruiting class, Willis picked UK over Purdue, Indiana and his childhood team, U of L.

Why pass on the school he dreamed of playing for when it was a possibility? The choice was simple.

“It was the best option for me,” Willis said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “Every other school that recruited me, they were great schools, but I felt that Kentucky could do more for me and I had better opportunities here. I looked at the pros and cons of each as well as the other colleges too. Kentucky was just the better opportunity.”

Derek Willis owns the distinction as the first commitment of the heralded 2013 signing class.

Willis chose UK early in the process by recruiting standards. Just a junior at the time, Willis picked Kentucky in January 2012, before UK’s 2012 national championship.

The 6-foot-9 forward, who was ranked a top-30 player at the time, decided before the rest of the star-studded 2013 class came together that Kentucky was too good to pass up.

“I figured I got a scholarship offer from Kentucky so I better get on this train while I can because I know what’s going to be coming behind me,” Willis said.

And oh, did they come.

The Harrison twins were the next to commit. Then it was James Young and Marcus Lee. Then Dakari Johnson pledged his allegiance to the Cats. And then Julius Randle signed on. Finally, Dominique Hawkins completed it.

When it was all said and done, UK had the No. 1 recruiting class once again and what many analysts are touting the greatest recruiting class of all time.

And Willis was the one who started it all.

Willis admitted it’s pretty neat to be known as the first commit in what could potentially be a historic class, even if it means he’s going to have to work twice as hard to keep up with the internal team competition. Willis said that’s ultimately the reason why he chose Kentucky. He knew he wouldn’t be the only high-profile recruit at UK, and he relished the chance to play alongside and compete with the best players in the country.

“It’s obviously about the team,” Willis said. “If it was just about me, I could have gone somewhere else. It would have still been about the team and I could have maybe started or I could have been coming off the bench earlier somewhere else, but here I want to work even harder to do that and I want to push myself to do that even harder. When they bring in potential NBA players like they have been, you can’t beat that. Going against future NBA players, it’s too big of an opportunity (to pass up).”

Though Willis was early to commit to UK, he didn’t miss out on the thrill and the anxiety of the recruiting process. Far from it. He actually verbally committed to a different school – Purdue –before Kentucky popped up on the radar after he re-opened the process a year later.

Position: Forward
Date of birth: June 21, 1995
Parents: Del and Trudy Willis
Hometown: Mt. Washington, Ky.
High school: Bullitt East (Ky.)
Nickname: D-Will
Twitter: @derek_willis33
Favorite TV show: Walking Dead
Favorite food: Cheeseburgers
Favorite superhero: Batman
Favorite player: Kevin Durant
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Video games
Favorite movie: Inception
Favorite artist: Drake

A rising prospect who didn’t want anything to do with the courtship of recruiting at age 15, Willis was sold on Purdue after just one visit to West Lafayette, Ind.

“I took a visit up there with my dad and my mom,” Willis said. “We went up there and just toured their arena. Afterwards, me and my mom were walking back to the car and my dad was kind of trailing behind us and I said, ‘Well, I want to commit. This is a scholarship offer. This is college. I just want to get the decision out of the way and just be good so you all don’t have to worry about it.’ So I committed.”

Willis stayed committed to Purdue for several months, and he still considered it a possible destination all the way up until he announced he was going to Kentucky. In the end, however, Willis realized he had rushed his decision in an attempt to get the process over as quickly as he could.

“That was the thing is I did it when I was young,” Willis said. “My family was still just coming up in the recruiting process. We didn’t know a lot about that stuff. Once I committed to Purdue, other options opened up. I stayed committed to Purdue for a long time, and then I eventually de-committed to see what else I could size up to Purdue. Then I found Kentucky and I felt that Kentucky was a better option for me.”

When Willis signed with UK, he was considered one of the top 30 players in the country by several recruiting services. A long, athletic forward who could put the ball on the floor as well as beat you inside – Willis said he molds his game after Kevin Durant – he was considered a can’t-miss prospect in Kentucky’s own backyard.

None of those attributes ever faded for Willis after his decision to come to UK, but his ranking slowly did as Willis became a target for his competition. Much like the players experience at Kentucky when everyone tries to make a name for themselves against the Cats, Willis was the player everybody played a little harder against because he was the kid who was going to UK.

Willis knew all along it was always an honor to play at Kentucky, but there is also a burden that comes with it.

“When you’re going to a big college like I was, you have a bull’s eye on your back,” Willis said. “Any game back in high school that we had, I had people just like gunning for me. There was always someone trying to get me out of the game. I had to get used to it.”

Willis’ stats suffered just a bit and he learned to deal with the competition, as did his recruiting ranking.

By the time his senior year rolled around, Willis had dropped outside the top 100. Willis said he noticed the fall, but he tried not to pay attention.

“The recruiting process is what it is,” Willis said. “Some kids eat it up like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got all this hype right now, I’m feeling good. People know who I am, they know what I can do, they know I’m a great basketball player.’ I didn’t really get into all that. I was a top-40, top-30 player or whatever it was, and the next couple months I fell off. I was just like, stuff happens. I try not to get into the hype about everything. I just try to focus on me.”

Still, Willis heard people talk, and he admitted it affected the beginning of his senior season.

In the first game of the season, Willis got frustrated and was ejected for arguing with a referee. He had to sit out two additional games, costing his team its best player.

Willis said that was a turning point for him. It was at that time, after watching his teammates struggle without him and a stern talking to from his best friend and role model, his dad, that he learned to close out the noise and just play ball.

With a new mindset, Willis flourished and finished a solid senior season for Bullitt East High School (Louisville), one of the best teams in the state. Willis actually ended up going back up in the rankings after the season, but he didn’t pay attention to that either.

All Willis cared about was learning from this previous year. Having already gone through the pressures of being in the spotlight, Willis thinks he’ll have a head start on how to deal with the responsibilities at UK.

“It made me mentally stronger,” Willis said. “It helped me grow as a person. That’s what this game is all about is just helping you mature.”

Derek is a very skilled, 6-9 big man who is learning to play through bumps, which is going to elevate his game. He’s a long-armed basketball player who can get his hands on balls and really pass. Like Marcus (Lee), he has a tremendous upside because he’s going to get stronger and be able to play more physical and really use his size and his shot-making ability to spread the court for us.” – Coach Cal
Don’t let Willis’ maturity fool you, though – he still uses the drop in the rankings as motivation.

Surrounded by six top-50 freshmen, Willis said he knows a lot of people aren’t expecting him and fellow teammate Dominique Hawkins to make much an impact this season even though they’ve held their own in summer pick-up games.

“We’re just getting overlooked basically because of rankings,” Willis said. “We’re not high-profile recruits, and that’s OK. We’re just going to prove to people this season what we can do and help a lot.”

Though he’d like for Hawkins to get a little more credit than he’s gotten – Willis raved about Hawkins’ toughness and athleticism – he’s channeling the personal lack of attention into something positive.

“People haven’t seen (Hawkins and I) play and they have no idea what we can do,” Willis said. “It’s total motivation. We’ve been turning around and making ourselves strong and better overall players.”

Willis said he feels fortunate that Hawkins, who he competed against on a regular basis in high school, joined him at UK. There’s something about being a Kentucky kid and attending the Commonwealth’s flagship university, Willis said, and he’s glad he has another Bluegrass native who he can share the responsibilities and expectations with.

Like Darius Miller has done, like Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood and Tod Lanter are doing, he wants to represent Kentucky with pride. In the end, childhood Louisville fan or not, that opportunity was too good to pass up.

“It means a little more to be from Kentucky and go here,” Willis said. “It’s the Kentucky tradition. … It’s such a great feeling knowing that you’re playing for the best fans. You have to give it your all every game.”