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Ashley Scoby: Looks can really be deceiving when seldom-used reserve Willis is involved

Derek Willis drives on Pikeville during an exhibition game prior to the season (UK Athletics Photo)

Derek Willis drives on Pikeville during an exhibition game prior to the season (UK Athletics Photo)


An online search for tweets about Kentucky forward Derek Willis yields some interesting 140-character bombs.

“Kentucky won by enough to have Derek Willis play!” “Wasted talent.” “Derek Willis doesn’t even look happy that they just won.”

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For a guy who has played a total of 75 minutes over 19 games, seeing anonymous Twitter geniuses wax poetic on his basketball career can’t be easy, especially when many complain that he doesn’t look “happy” enough. But the online snark about a player’s facial expressions is certainly not reserved for Willis, and he knows that. The Harrison twins dealt with similar complaints last year.

“That’s the thing I hate about this,” he said. “I feel like everyone here is genuinely a really good kid. Sometimes body language does get the best of people and it’s not like they’re bad kids or anything. It’s just like they get frustrated with the game or anything like that. If I do that, I don’t even realize it.”

Willis is very much a player who marches to the beat of his own drum. When the team got together to take a photo with the regional final trophy in Cleveland, Willis was absent from the main shot that most of the players later posted on their Instagram accounts. He said that he thinks he was already on the bus when the photo was taken because he was just ready to get home.

But at other times, Willis is right in the middle of the action. When the Kentucky players got the chance to go in a photo booth during their off day in Indianapolis, Willis hopped in with Trey Lyles, Tod Lanter and Sam Malone, putting his eye right next to the camera instead of posing seriously.

Lightly used reserve Derek Willis says he's just now understanding how hard he needs to work to get more playing time (UK Athletics Photo)

Lightly used reserve Derek Willis says he’s just now understanding how hard he needs to work to get more playing time (UK Athletics Photo)

Last month, responding to a CoachCal.com tweet from a game that read “Derek Willis set to check in,” Willis responded with “thats me.”

As you would guess, Willis is rarely seen as over the top. Rather it’s a quiet sense of humor that surfaces, sometimes misunderstood because he’s not gregarious like Karl-Anthony Towns or talkative like Willie Cauley-Stein.

Willis was a star at Bullitt East High School, and by his own admission, has had to adjust to being part of a pressure-packed, star-studded basketball program like UK.

“It’s just working through a lot of things, honestly. It’s different,” he said. “My whole life, I’ve played pretty much since I was a kid – started and everything. You come here and you get hit with a new degree of basketball and it’s just really me understanding it.”

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Part of Willis’ comprehension of the scope of UK basketball has transitioned into an appreciation for the fans. Yes, some of them complain about Willis and his production. But he says that he always tries to talk to the fans at the arenas, and “post something on social media” thanking them for their support after games.

Transfer rumors have swirled around Willis almost since the moment he stepped on campus alongside so many McDonald’s All-Americans. He admits he is one of several players on the team who have had to put forth “minimalistic effort” into being good at the game during high school. Now, they’re all at the “mountaintop” of college basketball, and Willis is starting to get just how much work needs to be put in to be successful in Lexington.

“I think I’m starting to understand it more,” he said. “I think next year will be kind of my breakout year honestly.”

Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a KyForward sports writer. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York in June.

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