By Charlie Perry @CharlieHPerry
NDNSPORTS- Kentucky junior “stretch four” Derek Willis is back on the bench. The Wildcats dropped a close contest to the Texas A&M Aggies 77-79 in Reed Arena ten days ago. Willis was held to three points before coming down awkwardly on his ankle ending his evening early. Without Willis the Wildcats have dropped two of their last three games. That’s the bad news, the good news is Kentucky head coach John Calipari expects to have the Wildcat big man back for Saturday’s game against SEC rival LSU Tigers.
Willis is no stranger to bench. The local boy from Mt. Washington Kentucky, spent the bulk of his first two seasons as a Wildcat waiting his turn behind a squad stacked with future NBA talent. “It’s just one of those things where you have to stay patient” Willis said, “My dad told me to just keep working. I stuck with it and it eventually happened.” The “It” Willis is referring to is a stat filled season and a promotion to starting power forward in mid-January vs. the Auburn Tigers. Since securing his starting spot Willis has averaged 11.18 points per game and 6.3 rebounds.
Willis has contributed a great deal in his eleven games as a Wildcat starter compared to last season where he averaged just 1.3 points per game and 0.7 rebounds. “Doing great. Really proud of him. He’s just like, just like the two that just walked in, we have five games left, it’s a long season, and they’re all beat up a little bit. Everybody else’s team is beat up the same way. You just have to go play. They are isolating him a little bit, but he’s getting better,” said Coach Calipari on Willis’ progression in a February aseaofblue.com article by Jason Marcum.
Willis never faltered in Calipari’s plan for him. He knew if he continued to work hard his time would come. “He (Calipari) told me I kind of had to take a back seat the first two years. Now he’s been on me more with defense and rebounding. Taking shots I can make. He’s told me a lot of things away from the court about life. That’s just helped me to transition better,” said Willis.
Under the tutelage of Coach Cal, Willis has become a big man that can stretch the floor. In the paint grabbing rebounds or out on the perimeter shooting three-pointers he’s showing signs of improvement. However Willis knows there is still much to be done, “Playing better defense, trying to rebound more. The past couple of games I didn’t have as many rebounds as I usually do. I’ve been trying to space out on the perimeter more and stretch out the defense. I just want to go out and get boards. Be more of a consistent player that can give the team something, said Willis.”
A Native American staying strong and resilient in tough times. Does this story sound familiar? Willis is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and is coming into his own like other Native American basketball players alike the Schimmel sisters, Bronson Koenig and Preston Wynne. He has built a strong following throughout Indian Country. Willis takes great pride in his heritage, “It’s always been important to me. A lot of the tattoos I have now are Native themed. It’s cool to look back on and have something to play for,” Willis said.
Willis has taken time on multiple occasions to talk with Native American youth at his games. Overcoming adversity and moving forward despite obstacles is something that rings true to him. He has some advice for Native youth that can feel hopeless at times, “Always stay positive. Something good is going to happen for you. You just got to keep working. That’s all it is. If you stay positive good things will happen.”
Charlie Perry is a contributing writer for NDNsports.com tweet him on Twitter @CharlieHPerry