BE’s Willis makes it official as he signs with Wildcats

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By Mike Farner

 MOUNT WASHINGTON - It was ten months earlier when Bullitt East’s Derek Willis stood on the very same spot in the Bullitt East Media Center and announced that he was committing to the University of Kentucky to play basketball for head coach John Calipari.

That was the tough job.

Last Wednesday, in front of considerably fewer television cameras and with no satellite trucks parked outside, the 6-9 Willis was back in the spotlight to finish what he had put in motion, signing all the necessary papers to make it official. At just a few minutes past 4 p.m., Willis was a Wildcat, signed, sealed and delivered.

Willis was smiling this time, something he might not have done the previous January.

“This was a lot easier and shorter,” the lanky Charger senior said with a smile as Bullitt East head coach Troy Barr took the papers to fax them to Lexington. “I’m not as nervous as when I committed. I was ready for this.”

When he signed the papers, the 16-year old senior was flanked by his parents, Del and Trudy, as well as his two sisters, Kylee and Taylor. Kylee will be playing for the Lady Chargers this winter. Also joining in the event was Willis’ grandmother, Vinita Petsch.

In January, Willis was the first player to commit to the 2013 Wildcat recruiting machine. Since that time, four other players have committed to what some are calling the best recruiting class of all time.

Willis is the first Kentucky high school player to sign with the state school since Calipari became the head coach.

“This is the fun part,” Barr noted. “It was a lot of work leading up to this. This is what it is all about.”

At this point, Willis says that he speaks with Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua about once a week. He added that he spoke briefly with Calipari during the previous week.

The Kentucky coaches are allowing Willis to stay the course under Barr and to have a strong senior season.

At the time he committed, Willis was ranked among the top 30 players in his class. After a light summer, Willis’ ranking dropped considerably. Nobody in the Bullitt East camp was worried about that.

Following Bullitt East’s loss to Trinity in the first round of the Kentucky State Basketball Tournament in March, Willis’ season kept going. He traveled to New Orleans for an All-Star game that was part of the NCAA Final Four and after his return to Mount Washington for a few days he was back on a plane for a two-week trip to Germany to play basketball.

The whirlwind continued as after he returned from Germany he was in Kentucky for just a day when he boarded another plane to compete in an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. It was during that event that a tired Willis did not play as well as at other showcases. That caused his ranking to tumble.

Still, with the Kentucky offer in his back pocket, there was no reason for Willis to extend more. The player, his parents and Barr sat down and decided that a light summer would be best for him and some of his upcoming goals, namely winning a state title with the Chargers and being a top contender for Mr. Basketball honors.

That is not to say he took the summer off. He still worked to get better and improve with his teammates.

One big push was to add weight to Willis’ frame. He will play this season about 15 pounds heavier than a year ago.

“We took some head taking the time off from AAU events,” Barr said. “But you can’t gain weight if you are playing four games in day.”

There was a slight setback this fall when Willis suffered an ankle injury. That slowed him during some of the Chargers’ early practices but he should be close to 100 percent when the team opens the season next Monday at home against Lexington Lafayette. 

“Overall, his weight is up and he is much stronger,” Barr pointed out of news that will worry Kentucky’s best high school teams this winter. “His game is a lot better than last year. It’s all been a good thing.”

“Other than the ranking stuff, I think I got better,” Willis said. “I think the whole team got better.”

Despite being the consensus top player in the state this season, Willis found plenty to work on when he was in the gym.

“I worked on driving the ball to the basket,” the senior stated. “I worked on being more aggressive than I have been in past years.”

Besides the improvement on the court, Willis has also become more at ease with his life. It is pretty much impossible to be 6-9 and committed to the University of Kentucky and live in the shadows. People do demand his time.

Barr laughed when he told the story of Willis working this summer at the ValuMarket in Mount Washington. Willis was working at the check out line, but the store had to open another line because so many customers were stopping to have their picture taken with the tallest guy around.

“I’m getting a lot more used to it,” Willis said of something that is obvious to those who have been around him for the past few years. “It is easier for me out in the public and them wanting pictures and autographs. Everywhere I go they want to talk to me and everything.”

Nobody signs with the Wildcats in this day and age and the question of ‘one and done’ not being brought up. Willis is not certain how long he will stay in Lexington, but he is in no hurry to get to the NBA.

“Whenever my time comes, then I’ll go,” he said. “If I can play at that level then I’ll go.

“About three years ago I didn’t understand my potential,” Willis added. “I think the NBA is a shot. I’ll work to get there.”

Before any of that is possible, there is one more season with Willis at Bullitt East. No one is hiding behind the elephant in the room. The team expects to win a state championship.

“I’m just taking it game by game,” Willis said. “We’ll have to win districts and then winning region will be tough. I like our chances of getting back to state (where they have played each of the past two seasons, reaching the semi-finals in 2011).

“I will say we’ll win it all,” the senior continued. “I don’t care where we are ranked, we’ll win it all.”

The Chargers start the 2012-13 season ranked second in the state by the coaches.