Kentucky alum Derek Willis brings unique perspective to Bluegrass Boys


By: Charlie Darby

Both on and off the court, Derek Willis is a contributor

Derek Willis is used to having new teammates.  

Over the course of his four-year career at the University of Kentucky (2013-2017), he played with ten one-and-done freshmen. While that constant turnover and adjustment could cripple virtually any other program in the country, it’s par for the course when you go to school in Lexington. 

Considering the Bluegrass Boys will bring together multiple eras of Wildcat greats in TBT 2019, Willis believes that this experience will be instrumental in the team’s success.  

That versatility also rings true on a personal level for the 6-foot-9 Willis. Need a three? He’s shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc for BG Gottingen (Germany) this season. Late-game defensive stop? Willis leads the team with five rebounds per game. How about a bucket in transition? He’s one of the best passing big men in the BBL.


Not only does he bring a different flavor to the frontcourt, he also brings a unique perspective to the locker room. At a young age, Willis lived on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming. He moved to Louisville during elementary school, but says that his heritage is something that has been instrumental in his individuality.

“I enjoy being a representation of the Native American community in basketball,” said Willis. “There’s only a couple of us playing professionally, so it’s definitely cool to represent them.”


After feeling disconnected from his Native American heritage upon moving to Louisville, he got several tattoos to remind him of his roots. Among them include 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.

Willis says that the tattoos represent the values that he tries to live by. His most prominent one is an owl that stretches from one shoulder to the other across his chest, symbolizing wisdom. 


“I take pride in my heritage,” Willis told Fox Sports in 2016. “I kind of got away from it after we moved back to Kentucky, did my own thing, until now. I thought it was pretty neat, the stories you hear about. Those are the stories behind my tattoos.”

Willis was the first member of the Bluegrass Boys to officially join the team in early March, but others soon followed. A week later, the team announced that Marcus Lee (a groomsman at Willis’ wedding) was on board. They have also revealed that 2014 G-League champion Ramon Harris and six-year overseas pro Josh Harrellson will be putting on the blue and white again this summer. 

After watching TBT on television the last couple years, Willis is excited to finally compete for $2 million. When you add in the fact that he’ll be playing in front of a home crowd in Lexington, it’s shaping up to be a summer for the ages.

“I’ve seen it on TV the last few years while I’ve been at home working out for the summer,” said Willis, “and I was thrilled when I got the call from [Mark] Krebs to be a part of it.  I’m excited to go back and play in front of our fans again.”

Photo credit UK Athletics