Darral Willis shot so often when he touched the ball last season that WSU coach Gregg Marshall started calling him “Machine Gun” Willis in film breakdowns.
That’s because 29.1 percent of WSU possessions when he was on the court ended in Willis’ hands, by far the highest rate on the team and a top-100 rate nationally. Still, the nickname bothered Willis and motivated him this summer to shed the label.
Willis has responded with the most consistent play of his two-year career. He has scored in double-figures in seven straight games and accumulated four double-doubles with averages of 12.8 points and 7.5 rebounds. And that usage rate? It’s still the highest on the team, but it’s down to 26.3 percent.
No. 8 Wichita State (10-2) will open American Athletic Conference play Saturday at Connecticut (7-5).
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“I feel like I’m definitely taking way better shots than I did last year,” Willis said. “Last year (Marshall) was right, I was ‘Machine Gun’ Willis. I was shooting everything. But now I feel like I’m playing my best basketball and I’m trying to get my teammates more involved because that’s going to make it easier for me.”
His improved passing is what stands out to coaches and teammates. He finished with just 23 assists in 36 games last season. He already has 15 assists this season. Teammates point to the Arkansas State game as close to the best version of Willis: 14 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, no turnovers.
“The biggest difference from last year to this year is he’s a more willing and better passer,” Shamet said. “He’s looking to the perimeter and I’ve noticed this year our little connection is a lot better than it was last year. He’s looking to make plays for others after he scores it a few times.
“And the crazy thing is he has more in him. So he just has to continue to get better. He’s helping us a lot right now.”
Willis’ two-point shooting has essentially remained the same from last season, but Willis’ offensive efficiency has increased thanks to his addition of a three-point stroke installed this summer. He only took one three-pointer last season; he has connected on nine in 12 games this season and is shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc.
“I’m starting to see all of the work I put in over the summer start to pay off,” Willis said. “I’m starting to hit more shots from the outside. I’m a good driver, so I can either catch it and shoot or make something happen off the dribble for me or my teammates.”
Willis has been at his best on put-backs on offensive rebounds, cutting to the basket off interior screens, and popping out as the screener.
But what Willis has been most proud of is the counter he developed this summer for teams that shade him to the left. He is known as a dominant left-handed player who almost always spins to get to his left hand, but in the Oklahoma game he left a defender leaning left in the dust with a spin move to his right and finished with a ferocious dunk.
That’s the result of hard work in the offseason in Willis’ pursuit to become a more complete player.
“I knew coming into this season everyone was going to play me to my left and try to take that away, so I had to come up with something new,” Willis said. “There’s going to be plenty more plays like that the rest of the season.”