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Keith Taylor: Kentucky junior Derek Willis making a strong case to become a regular fixture in rotation

By Keith Taylor
KyForward sports writer

Derek Willis is making a strong case to become a part of Kentucky’s rotation this season.

The Kentucky junior scored six points, grabbed nine rebounds and dished out five assists in second-ranked Kentucky’s 111-58 exhibition win over Kentucky State Friday night.

 Kentucky's Derek Willis, left, is doing the little things to earn more playing time (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky’s Derek Willis, left, is doing the little things to earn more playing time (Bill Thiry Photo)

After standing in the shadows of other players during his first two seasons, Willis is developing into a viable option for Kentucky coach John Calipari and earning more minutes. He scored 10 points in 14 minutes in an exhibition win over Ottawa earlier this week and logged 21 minutes against the Thoroughbreds.

“He took minutes,” Calipari said. “Now he’s like the first guy you want to put in because he can play the four, the three (spot). You saw that if we needed to, we can put Alex (Poythress) and Marcus Lee at the four and the five. You can play that way.”

The performance by Willis also included two steals and a pair of blocked shots to go along with five deflections. During the second half, Willis threw a half-court pass to teammate Jamal Murray for a slam, drawing a rousing applause from the fans.

“I like getting everybody involved,” Willis said. “I just want to do as much as I can for my teammates, get them in the flow of the game. It helps me out.”

BOXSCORE: Kentucky 111, Kentucky State 58

Most of all, Willis was pleased with his five deflections on the defensive end of the floor than any other aspect of his game.

“That’s a stat that not a lot of people really pay attention to,” he said. “It’s something people don’t understand and how it affects the way a game is played.”

Kentucky senior Alex Poythress, who scored 13 points against Kentucky State, said Willis is “not trying to do too much” once he gets on the court.

 Kentucky's Derek Willis makes a pass to Alex Poythress for a dunk in the first half Friday night (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky’s Derek Willis makes a pass to Alex Poythress for a dunk in the first half Friday night (Bill Thiry Photo)

“If he wants to play, he’s got to keep it simple — make shots when he has them, rebound and block shots and he did that for us,” Poythress said. “He’ll get minutes if he keeps on doing that.”

Freshman Skal Labissiere scored all 22 of his points in the second half to lead the Cats. He also had nine rebounds. Jamaal Murray tallied 20 points and Tyler Ulis came up with 15.

Calipari hasn’t been surprised by the recent emergence of Willis and said his maturity as an upperclassman is starting to show.

“Derek (Willis) is a typical college player,” Calipari said. “You come in your first year or so, you’re struggling to get time, then you bust through your junior year, and then suddenly it is your time and your senior year, you’re out on the floor and you’re doing the things that you need to do.”

Willis said he has focused on the little things instead of his outside shooting in an effort to earn more playing time.

“I feel like I’m pretty confident in my shooting right now and that’s just going to have to take a back seat,” he said. “I just want to focus on the other aspects of the game and try to do that. Just rebounding and playing with energy, keep my man in front of me. All of that.”

Even though Willis is proving he deserves to be on the court, he knows the competition for playing time in practice won’t get any easier and will likely become more intense. As the regular season draws near, Willis will attempt to gain an edge on newcomers Charles Matthews, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins.

“I’m in competition with everyone on the team, really,” he said. “You want to play well against those guys (in practice) and outplay them. We’re just all trying to make our team better.”

Although he’s been impressive in two exhibition games, Calipari doesn’t want Willis to become complacent.

“I’m proud of him,” he said. “I grabbed him and said, ‘you need to have a great weekend this weekend, now build on this game.’”

Willis doesn’t intend on slowing down and wants to keep building his case for more playing time.

“I just have to keep it going and build on it,” Willis said.

Game tracker: Albany at Kentucky, Friday, 7 p.m. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 WBUL.

Kentucky Schedule

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com.

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