The road to the NBA for Derek Willis included a side trip to La Conner this week. The 6’-9” University of Kentucky product held a two-day camp August 7 and 8 for local youth at Landy James Gym, showcasing the skillset that endeared him to legendary Wildcats coach John Calipari the past four years. Willis, who recently inked a deal with the Detroit Pistons, served as headliner for an event coordinated by La Conner High alum Greg Edwards of the Swinomish Youth Center. Boys and girls from kindergarten through high school attended. Edwards lined up the appearance by Willis, a Native American, though a family connection. “He had a lot of great stories to tell on the way here from the airport,” Edwards said of Willis, a Mount Washington, KY., native who spent his formative years on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Willis’ mom is a member of the Southern Arapaho, Pawnee, and Muscogee tribes. Willis made his mark at perennial power Kentucky by playing his best when it counted the most. He scored 11 points as a junior against UCLA, and followed that up a year later by recording eight points and eight rebounds against the Bruins in an NCAA Sweet Sixteen clash. Willis notched a season-high 18 points in a senior year matchup with Kansas, like UCLA, a kingpin of college basketball. The Wildcats’ top perimeter shooter, Willis was equally renowned for his success off the court, regularly landing on the academic honor roll and being named to the Southeast Conference Community Service Team. Edwards said Willis began drawing the attention of Calipari and other college coaches while a teenager playing the competitive Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit. “He ended up being recruited by all the big schools like Indiana, Louisville, Purdue, Michigan State, and Kentucky,” said Edwards, “and his AAU teammates ended up getting offers, too.” The opportunity to come to La Conner was one Willis was eager to accept as well. He enjoys working with kids, a trait much in evidence during his time here. Willis guided his charges through dribbling, shooting, and passing drills, calmly providing advice as needed. During breaks he impressed campers and adults alike with his shooting prowess. He repeatedly swished jumpers from well beyond the three-point line – and that was just after nine o’clock on Monday morning. “He makes it look easy,” said Youth Center staffer Taysha James-Sherman, “like it’s nothing.” Willis was joined early Monday by La Conner High players Jeffrey Johnson, Arlo Liddell, and Spencer Tripp plus Lady Braves alum Britteny Grossglass, now of the Youth Center and Northwest Indian College. Throughout his visit, Willis stressed the value of education. “He’s one of the very few Kentucky players who stayed in school all four years,” Edwards said. “So many of the others were one-and-done and off to the NBA.” Now Willis is poised to join them.