Future Looks Bright For Willie Cauley-Stein
By Jeffrey Weidel
Situated at the top of the key, Sacramento Kings post player Willie Cauley-Stein pauses for a moment, eyes the defense, then goes to work against Golden State Warriors defender JaVale McGee.
A head fake freezes McGee for a second, giving Cauley-Stein the step he needs to dribble rapidly toward the basket and finish the play at the rim. The trailing McGee wears a look of frustration as Cauley-Stein heads up court, satisfied that some of the offensive skills that have been dormant for two years with the Kings are now on display.
In mid-February, the youthful second-year player from the University of Kentucky enjoyed an uptick in minutes and quickly took advantage. That was evident the first game following All-Star Weekend when Cauley-Stein erupted for a career-high 29 points and also collected 10 rebounds as the Kings defeated visiting Denver.
The numbers have been more modest since that coming-out-party, but Cauley-Stein has been a productive player, moving into the starting lineup and giving the Kings a look at the future. In the first 17 games since the All-Star break, the mobile big man averaged 12.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
The production has been pleasing to watch for Peja Stojakovic, the Kings Director of Player Personnel. However, the former high-scoring King is more impressed by Cauley-Stein’s eagerness to work than the numbers he’s delivering.
“I like Willie’s approach and his work ethic. He’s not afraid to work,” Stojakovic said. “He understands he needs to get better. He’s got to get back in the lab so to speak and find ways to make himself more effective. Willie is capable of doing a lot of things. But it’s all about repetition, doing those things over and over again.”
Teammate Ty Lawson is another one who spots the potential of Cauley-Stein, an athletic big man who can outrun most post players, displays considerable quickness for his size, and also possesses the elevation that makes him a player to fear when opponents penetrate the lane. Some Cauley-Stein admirers compare him to Los Angeles Clippers All-Star center DeAndre Jordan. But teammate Ty Lawson goes a step further.
“He can be better than DeAndre. Willie is more skilled,” Lawson said. “He can really run the court, he shoots the ball well, and he makes good moves on the block. He needs to learn how to be more patient, wait a little bit for things to develop, then react. He rushes things right now. But one day he will realize what to do and it will all click.”
There’s no lack of confidence in Cauley-Stein. He is upfront about the patience he had to exercise for one-and-a-half seasons, playing primarily a defense-focused role whose primary source of points came from alley-oop dunks that ignited a crowd, but left the 7-footer longing to display more. Now he envisions playing more on the perimeter, shooting from the outside, expanding his range to 3-point territory, displaying his passing skills, and utilizing his athleticism to beat defenders off the dribble.
“I’ve been able to be more guard-like since the trade,” he said. “I’m working hard, doing a lot of ball-handling (drills) and trying to work on the things that will expand my game. A year or two from now I want to be considered a power forward. I’m too athletic to play the dunker role at center. I have an advantage over most big guys – I’m quicker and faster. Call me whatever you want, but I’m eventually going to play like a power forward. They will have no choice if I’m capable of doing it.”
A promising rookie season had Cauley-Stein expecting to get even more minutes this year. Yet his minutes dwindled and the frustration mounted. At times, he seemed like a forgotten man on the Kings roster, which featured many veterans.
“It was a crazy time. People in my corner kept telling me to be patient, but after two months of not playing I began to think – ‘when is my time coming,”’ Cauley-Stein said. “I was starting to lose patience. Then the trade happened, and boom, I’m going from zero to 100 mph just like that. It was a blessing. It changed my whole season.”
Instead, Cauley-Stein gained the playing time that might put him on the path to being a cornerstone in Sacramento for many years to come.