After playing just 100 minutes his first two seasons at Kentucky, Derek Willis (Southern Arapaho, Pawnee and Creek) didn’t enter the 2015-16 season making a big impression. But as the season progressed, the 6-foot-9 forward played a significant role in the team’s late surge – from nearly falling out of the Top 25 poll to making the NCAA Tournament as a 4-seed.
Willis, a three-star recruit, found his niche with his three-point game and in his first NCAA Tournament appearance, helped clinch an 85-57 win over Stony Brook by scoring 8 points, grabbing five rebounds and blocking two shots in 19 minutes.
In a phone interview with ICTMN, Willis shared stories of growing up a Louisville fan and finding confidence in himself.
You’re one of just a handful of Native Americans playing Division I. What has it been like to receive support from fans across Indian country?
It’s cool. I get little messages. I see the ones on social media. Back where I’m from, at my grandma’s, they get together and watch the games. It’s just cool.
What has been your teammates’ reactions to learning you are Native American? Are you defeating any stereotypes?
I feel like when I tell people they’re just like, ‘Ah he’s probably just saying that to say that.’ They’re probably just assuming I’m white, Caucasian. But I’m definitely Native American and my dad is white. I’m just trying to take pride and understand all that goes on with that culture.
What’s it like to play for Coach Calipari?
It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do in the sport. It’s so demanding. It’s a full-time job and more. People really don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes with University of Kentucky basketball. It’s stressful. It takes a lot out of you. It’s also been a great experience too. There’s great upsides to it. It pays off and it makes you a better person, so you just fight through it and enjoy the process.
Your role on the team increased significantly this year.
I think everyone knew that I could shoot. It was just the defensive aspect of the game and rebounding [that improved].
You had a breakout game versus Tennessee this year, in which you hit seven threes en route to 25 points—an all-time high for a junior in the Calipari era.
I was progressively getting confident with my game. Letting everything go.
Where do you get your size from?
Both parents actually. My mom’s about 6-foot, 6-1. My dad’s 6-7.
How much more did your game improve from playing against future NBA draft picks during your first couple years at Kentucky?
“It was a lot of learning really, transitioning from high school to college. Competing with [last year’s No. 1 NBA draft pick] Karl Anthony-Towns my freshman year. I had to get used to that but that helped me out a lot. Willie [Cauley-Stein, No. 6 overall draft pick last year] was different to guard. You learn a lot. You just look at the game different from playing those positions and guarding ‘em.”
Is there any bigger accomplishment for a Kentucky boy to be playing for the Wildcats?
I grew up a Louisville fan, actually. Pretty much up until the recruiting process.
You were one of the top three-point shooters on your team this year. Has your game evolved or do you feel these were your strengths all along?
I felt like I could always shoot. There’s just some things I worked on.
You got a taste of the NCAA Tournament this year. You hit all three shots you took against Stony Brook. What was it like to play in the big dance?
Great experience. Had been there before, but I didn’t feel involved because I wasn’t out there in the game.
What happened in the Indiana game [a 73-67 loss in the second round of the tourney]?
I felt like we didn’t play with fight and energy. We played lackadaisical. Even then we hung with them. They just wanted it more.
What are your goals for next season?
I’m just working on getting stronger, and defensively I want to be a better player, so maybe I start the season starting. And win a national title. That’s all that really matters to me.
Follow ICTMN’s Cary Rosenbaum on Twitter: @CaryRosenbaum