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Derek The Destroyer: Freshman reserve Willis has prepared Kentucky for Kaminsky

ARLINGTON, Texas — In an effort to prepare Kentucky for Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in Saturday’s Final Four, John Calipari turned to his bench. Kaminsky is a difficult matchup because of his size and skill set, chronicled in-depth here, and he’s not like any player Kentucky has seen yet this season.
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Or have they?


Six-foot-nine freshman Derek Willis played the role of Kaminsky in practice this week, and the exercise taught the Wildcats one thing and reminded them of another: Kentucky’s big men are in for a major challenge defending the way Kaminsky plays, and Willis is really good.


“He’s cooking people,” Alex Poythress said.


Kentucky reserve freshman Derek Willis has only played 39 minutes this season, but he's been on fire in practice this week preparing the Wildcats for Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky. (Photo by James Pennington)

Kentucky reserve freshman Derek Willis has only played 39 minutes this season, but he’s been on fire in practice this week preparing the Wildcats for Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. (Photo by James Pennington)

Willis was lauded as a candidate for major playing time during preseason interviews, and as time went by, he stayed put on the bench. He’s only made 14 appearances as a freshman for a total of 39 minutes on the floor. Six of his 14 appearances were officially logged as one minute or zero minutes. He’s attempted nine shots this year and has 16 points.


He’s played 18 total minutes since New Year’s Day, and yet here he was, dominating Kentucky’s big men in practice the week of the Final Four.


Calipari let him mostly loose in practice, designing his motion on offense to mimic the way Kaminsky works off screens in Bo Ryan’s offense.


“You know, they all really did a good job,” Willis said. “We would run through the plays. They had trouble with it at first, because it’s a different offense than we’ve been seeing. After a couple of times going through it, they started to get used to it. Big men don’t usually have to fight over screens, so that’s definitely different.”


Praise for Willis’ ability, despite his lack of playing time this year, has been easy to find. Willis scored a fast-break bucket against Georgia on Jan. 25—the most recent points he’s scored—and former Kentucky star Rex Chapman tweeted that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Willis ultimately became the best NBA player, in time, among Kentucky’s entire roster.


Willie Cauley-Stein, who would figure to have been a huge part of Kentucky’s plan against Kaminsky if he were able to play through his ankle injury, watched from the sidelines as Willis torched the Wildcats.


“Derek’s crazy. Derek’s really good. He’s so crafty for how long he is, and quick,” Cauley-Stein said. “He’s done a really good job at playing (Kaminsky), probably a little better. How fast he is—it’s kind of like that kid but different, because he plays more freelance. The other kid, he plays more structured.


“Derek, you don’t know what Derek’s going to do,” Cauley-Stein said. “Derek’s just crazy. You don’t know what he’s about to do. It makes it that much harder for us to guard him. You want to make practices as hard as the game, so hopefully when they go in there they realize that it’s harder in practice than it is in the game.”


Willis has been a suitable Kaminsky facsimile because, even though he’s three inches shorter, he has the ability to range out beyond the three-point line. Marcus Lee, one of several who struggled containing Willis this week, said the biggest mistake Kentucky could make against Kaminsky would be giving him space to shoot, something they learned defending Willis.


“We just have to keep a high hand the whole time,” Lee said. “We can’t really have our hands down, because he is a really great shooter. We’ll just have to be more—we have to move our feet a whole lot more.”


Lee had his breakout performance against Michigan, perhaps the most 10-point, eight-rebound performance in recent memory. His opportunity presented itself because of Cauley-Stein’s injury. Even if Willis never checks in against Wisconsin, it could be his breakout performance if the Wildcats make life tough for Kaminsky and advance to Monday’s championship game. Even if it didn’t happen on the floor at AT&T Stadium, it would have happened on the floor at the Joe Craft Center.


“He’s destroyed me and Dakari, and he’s loving it,” Lee said. “He’s absolutely loving every moment of it. When you give Derek the freelance to do whatever he wants in practice, he goes for, like, 50. Knowing that our practices are very long, he goes for 50. Once it started happening, we all kind of stopped and were like, ‘Really, Derek?’ Once Coach told us he was going to be (Frank Kaminsky), I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is going to happen.’ It’s great. I love that Derek’s being able to do what he knows he can do.


“He’s playing the part of the destroyer, that’s what I call Derek,” Lee said. “Derek The Destroyer. He just gets the freelance to destroy the big men for the week.”

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