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Derek Willis Continues On His ‘Logical Path’ To NBA

By LARRY VAUGHT

She might be more than just a little bit biased, but Keely Willis says the perception of her husband, former Kentucky basketball player Derek Willis, took a dramatic shift during his second professional season in Germany.

“He went from not being known to being talked about by every team there in six months,” Keely Willis said. “The NBA remains his end goal but we are grateful he has been able to play with and against a lot of high talent in Europe.

After a year in the G-League when he was not drafted by any NBA teams, Willis went to Germany. He played in 34 games during the 2018-19 season and averaged 12 points and five rebounds per game before signing a two-year deal after the season ended.

His second season was suspended by the COVID-19 outbreak and the player and his wife were able to barely get back to the United States before a travel embargo was put in place. However, Willis said he “definitely enjoyed” playing in Europe.

“I played in the International League and the German League both this last season. We went to some cool countries. One day you might be playing in Israel, then Germany the next day and then on to Spain,” he said. “The International League is the second highest level league in Europe.”

He said he had “great teammates” and a solid team.

“I was the No. 1 ranked 3-point shooter and had the highest shooting percentage in the Europe Cup,” he said. “I thought I played well. I was ranked in rebounding, blocked shots and other categories in the league. So I think I had a pretty good year.”

His plan has been to increase his level of league play each year — and so far he has. He’s moved from the G-League to the International League. Next would be the Euro League or the NBA.

“I want to play Euro League and then try to make the NBA again,” Willis said. “That’s the logical path and plan. When I watch the Euro League, to me they players play harder and are more physical than the NBA. It’s a very overlooked league and not respected in America like it should be.

“You are playing against some guys and teams I have huge respect for and what they do is completely different. Top level European play is pretty competitive and sometimes I feel like it is tougher to play and succeed in that league than it is in the NBA.”

One plus last season was former UK teammate Isaiah Briscoe was on Willis’ team for a few months.

“It was good to catch up with him and see how he has grown as a person and player,” Willis said.

Another former UK player, Archie Goodwin, was also Willis’ teammate and his former UK teammate, Dominique Hawkins, played in a different league but lived only about 17 miles away from Willis and his wife.

Keely Willis volunteered to coach a basketball team for players with special needs and often convinced her husband to help her.

“After he would get done with his practice, our team would practice and sometimes Derek would run around with the guys and play basketball,” Keely said. “If he was not there, I would play.”

The couple spent time trying to learn the German language, a necessity for Keely to get an office job. She says the players’ wives and girlfriends were all “close” and she also picked up a new hobby — photography.

“I really want to try and make a career out of photography to make the most of the situation I am in since I can’t do what most of my friends back in the States do job-wise,” she said.

“Fortunately, I got to travel a lot, too. We are 40 minutes from Switzerland, 45 minutes from Austria, four hours from Italy and a couple of hours from France. We are near everything. So I had a lot to keep me busy, including figuring things out for Derek’s nutrition. But I really did love being there and would not mind going back at all.”