Walking into Koch Arena on Tuesday evening, Darral Willis was serenaded with “MVP” chants from his former Shocker teammates.
Back in Wichita after his debut professional season in Cyprus, Willis had returned to Koch Arena to practice against the Aftershocks, a WSU basketball alumni team that had fellow 2018 WSU graduates Rashard Kelly, Zach Brown and Conner Frankamp in attendance. But it was Willis who quickly became the center of attention.
They wanted to hear about how Willis dropped 40 points to lead his team, Karavnos Strovolou, to the Cypriot Cup and how he had earned league MVP honors in his first season as a pro.
“That was actually the first MVP of my entire basketball career,” Willis told The Eagle with a smile. “And scoring 40, that was another milestone I came across. It was a good experience. It was actually pretty fun. All I had to do was worry about basketball and just work on my skills and get better. My coach and my teammates let me display what I could do.”
Scoring 40 may not be a surprise to Shocker fans who watched the junior and senior seasons of Willis after he transferred to Wichita State. He averaged 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds over two years with WSU, but did so in just 17 minutes per game and earned the nickname “Machine Gun” Willis from coach Gregg Marshall.
In fact, Willis scored 23.1 points per 40 minutes in his WSU career, a better career mark than notable players such as Landry Shamet (18.0), Ron Baker (17.2) and Fred VanVleet (15.2) and right in line with Cleanthony Early (23.1).
While scoring has always come natural to the lefty from Madison, Wisconsin, Willis said he became a better overall basketball player overseas. He averaged team highs in points (14.9) and rebounds (9.7) and was also chosen to the league’s all-defensive team on top of MVP, Forward of the Year and All-Imports honors.
“I really learned how to be a really good basketball player,” Willis said. “I learned how to play basketball here at Wichita State, but I learned even more how to play basketball the European style over there.”
The Cyprus league is considered a lower-level professional league in Europe, but Willis’ breakout rookie campaign led to better opportunities for his second season. He recently accepted an offer to play for Nizhny Novgorod in Russia’s top-tier VTB United League, which is considered an upper-tier professional league.
Not only is it an increase in quality (Novgorod made the playoffs last season), but Willis said it was a significant boost in money as well.
“It’s all about moving up that ladder,” Willis said. “Hopefully I do good in this league, then maybe I can stay in the States and get an opportunity here.”
After traveling overseas for the first time, Willis said there was an adjustment period early last year with the foreign food and being away from friends and family. But this time, he knows what to expect and the transition to Russia should be smoother.
He received advice about the move from a former teammate, as Kelly played his rookie season in the VTB United League in Russia for Parma and averaged 11.0 points and 7.7 rebounds.
“He really helped me make my decision,” Willis said. “He knew how it was over there and he showed me everything I needed to know and how they play.”