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The Derek Willis Problem: How the freshman has given John Calipari yet another option

Derek Willis (Photo by Jon Hale)

Derek Willis (Photo by Jon Hale)


John Calipari has a problem. It’s a good problem, mind you. This team has a lot of good problems, really. The most confounding of those problems, at least right now in this instant in which Kentucky still has not played against another team and revealed its team weaknesses, may have to do with Derek Willis.
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Again, this is a good problem. Willis is better than anyone thought he would be. He’s better than he thought he was, at least if you ask Calipari. And Calipari isn’t shy in admitting Willis is better than Calipari thought he was before he arrived on campus. Those are the kinds of problems, for the most part, Kentucky has complained about in the preseason: “Our players are too good.”


At Kentucky’s media day on Oct. 15—the first time Calipari gave an interview since practice had begun—Calipari’s second sentence in a 40-minute news conference was, “Derek Willis is better than I thought.” (The first sentence was, “Marcus Lee is better than I thought.”) Even though Calipari volunteered that information nearly as immediately as he possibly could have, still not one question was asked about Willis during those 40 minutes.


Later on in the news conference, Calipari offered up—when asked if anything unexpected had happened in practice to that point—that Willis had simultaneously dunked on Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson during a practice the week before. Willis, the lanky 6-9 overlooked recruit, had dunked on Randle, the thick 6-9 National Player of the Year candidate, and Johnson, the 7-foot big man.


“We just stopped practice, like, oh my gosh,” Calipari said.


Still, nobody had seen this version of Willis until the Blue-White Scrimmage on Tuesday. He was 8-of-13 from the floor and 5-of-6 from 3-point range, finishing with 21 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Again, these are the problems Calipari has had to navigate this preseason: 21-8-5 from someone perceived to be a second-rotation player at best.


When Willis first arrived on campus this summer, he didn’t even play in a lot of the pick-up games on campus. There was only so much room, and program alumni in the pros were coming in and taking up one of 10 spots. “There just wasn’t a lot of space to play,” Willis said. Once practice rolled around, though, he said he started to get a feel for himself, and his teammates did too.


He’d observe the pick-up games, though, and he knew he’d fit in.


“I think everyone was kind of surprised with my game,” he said. “They generally didn’t know what I could do. They just didn’t really hear a lot about me.”


What makes him dangerous was clear at the Blue-White Scrimmage: He’s as big as he is, and he can shoot. He can really shoot, actually. The last of his five made threes Tuesday was at NBA 3-point range, and it may have even been some distance behind the imaginary NBA line. Shooting, for instance, derailed the 2009-10 team, Calipari’s first year as the UK coach. If Darnell Dodson wasn’t coming off the bench and hitting threes, the well was nearly dry; John Wall and Eric Bledsoe weren’t dead perfect, Patrick Patterson was still developing that aspect of his game, and Darius Miller had not developed into the shooter he would become. This year’s team may not have that problem with James Young in the starting lineup, but Willis’ shot is something teams will have to account for. “I’ll shoot from wherever,” Willis said.


He also showed off other aspects of his game: the ball-handling he said he’s been working on, the rebounding that any team needs from a player that size, the defense that allows Calipari flexibility in match-ups. What a problem Calipari has here, trying to find minutes for a player like Willis. It’s unclear where those minutes will come from; if Alex Poythress is inconsistent like he was last year, it would stand to reason perhaps the minutes bleed from Poythress to Willis.


Wherever the minutes come from, it’s clear they’ll have to come from somewhere. Willis seems like a player who can fit in a few different places in the lineup, so Calipari won’t have to necessarily compromise one player’s clock just to get Willis on the floor.


All that he’s shown to prove he’s worth the playing time, Willis said he still has more to show still unseen.


“My game play is kind of elusive,” he said. “They didn’t know what to expect when they played me. Then when I was, like, hitting threes and going around them and dunking on them, they didn’t know. Now they kind of know how I play and what I can do. I still don’t really think they know everything I can do, though.”

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