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Derek Willis went from “not being known” to elevating his planned path to NBA

Derek Willis (Jeff Houchin Photo)


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.”

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