Although Derek Willis excelled in his first season in Germany last year, his audition against Ratiopharm Ulm could not really have hinted that he would land with the 7DAYS EuroCup team in the summer. However, the forward's versatility was too much to pass up for Ulm, which hopes Willis can excel in his debut on the continental stage.
The 24-year-old showcased strong skills as he averaged 12.0 points on 42.5% three-point shooting and 5.0 rebounds BG Goettingen last season. He scored 12 points with 7 rebounds against Ulm in Goettingen, but in the rematch, his new team held Willis to 2 points as he fouled under 6 minutes
"It was horrible," Willis recalls now. "I think that was literally the worst game I have played in my life."
What actually landed Willis a two-year deal in Ulm was his ability to play at various positions and excel at both ends of the court. He has shown that already through the first two rounds as Ulm's leading scorer, rebounder, three-point threat and shot-blocker in the EuroCup. Despite losses in both games so far, Willis is tied for fifth among all EuroCup players with an average performance index rating of 22.5.
"Derek is a big man who can play a variety of ways and will give us defensive stability and a presence in rebounding with his size," Jaka Lakovic, Ulm's rookie head coach, said when signing Willis. "In addition, Derek is a good shooter who, after a good rookie season, wants to bring us to the next level."
Willis may well remind fans of Aaron White, formerly of Zalgiris Kaunas and now with AX Armani Exchange Milan, as he did his coach at Goettingen, Johan Roijakkers, who saw similarities in how the two spaces the court, run the floor, defens strongly and rebound well.
"He told me: 'You know, your game resembles a lot this kid from Zalgiris: Aaron White. Have you heard of him?'" Willis remembers. "He was spot on with it. It was very helpful to watch White play at that level."
Willis's journey to the EuroCup did not take the most common path.
He grew up on the Native American Wind River reservation in Wyoming, the seventh-largest reservation in the United States. His mother belongs to three Native American tribes: Southern Arapahoe, Pawnee and Creek. His father is from Kentucky, where Willis moved at age 5 and would finish high school. But he never forgot the reservation he started at.
"During college I started to have a more sense of pride with [his Native American roots]," he said. "You're getting older, and speaking to my grandma and seeing how my family was involved in the Native American community, I learned about some of this awesome stuff. I felt I needed to take a bigger sense of pride in that."
That led to most of the tattoos that Willis has.
"I feel like it's a way to express yourself, so I thought, 'Why not do some Native American-themed ones?' It was only right," said Willis, who has a wolf on his rib cage, a Native American headdress on his left shoulder, a skull on his right shoulder and a dreamcatcher on his left forearm.
"The dreamcatcher is definitely one of my favorites," Willis said. "I like the dead Native American chief headdress on my left shoulder. That was one of the first ones. Those two really stick out to me."
While Willis was discovering more intensely his family's Native American roots, he was also learning the game under John Calipari at the famed University of Kentucky while it was known a hotbed for some of the best American collegians. That meant Willis did not always get the playing time to show what he could do, but working day in, day out in practice against many famous future pros like Karl-Anthony Towns helped him develop.
"No question," Willis said. "For a while it was like I was just a practice player. I was playing from shooting guard to center. My whole time there, in the defense we played we would switch everything. I was guarding Karl-Anthony (Towns), he'd set a pick and I would have to guard Tyler Ulis, a point guard. It helped me guard different positions. Offensively I started to figure out what I did well and how I could use that to keep myself out there on the court. I benefitted so much from being out there. They made me so much better a player now."