On draft night Willie Cauley-Stein joined a long list of Sacramento Kings lottery picks.
What distinguishes the rookie from his talented peers, or any King regardless of draft status is his niche. If Cauley-Stein translates his play style at Kentucky to the pros, he’ll join a very exclusive group of names to ever don the Kings colors.
Cauley-Stein justified the sixth overall pick because of his defensive potential. The 7-foot, 240-pounder is reactive and balanced enough to effectively guard pick-and-rolls and close out on shooters. But the skill that comes to mind when Cauley-Stein highlights show from his days with the Wildcats is his shot blocking.
He averaged 1.7 blocks in his final college season, and Cauley-Stein recorded 2.2 swats per game for his three-year Kentucky career. Nerlens Noel’s former teammate produced a terrorizing 2.9-block average in 23.8 minutes during his sophomore 2013-14 season.
It’s clear by watching Cauley-Stein on the court that he possesses the natural instincts and timing of a reputable hoop protector. Such a trait has been widely missing in Sacramento since the franchise moved to California 30 years ago.
The Kings, in their endless search to pair DeMarcus Cousins with an enforcer, have slipped with Hassan Whiteside, Thomas Robinson, Hamady N’Diaye and Ryan Hollins in recent seasons. Eric Moreland lasted just over two minutes before tearing his left labrum in December.
The last impactful goalie on the team was Samuel Dalembert in 2011. Before him was Keon Clark, who logged 22 minutes a game in the 2002-03 campaign. Then there was Duane Causwell, who the Kings drafted 18th in 1990 and disappointed as time went on.
The absence of shot blockers in Sacramento past has proven their presence isn’t necessary for NBA success. Rim protectors are a luxury and one which Kings coach George Karl unbashingly loves to flaunt.
Historically Karl fielded a rim challenger whenever he could. In Seattle, he had Shawn Kemp, Jim McIlvaine or Ervin Johnson commanding the paint. In Milwaukee Karl played Johnson again and an emerging Joel Pryzbilla. Karl was fortunate in Denver when he could lean on Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen or JaVale McGee.
Karl knows too well the advantages of having a shot blocker, an imposing rover who can shut down the post and intimidate drivers who get by the first line of defense. The coach empowers his anchor in the paint to take chances, and they have responded with passionate performances like Camby’s, the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year.
While Camby comparisons may be a stretch, Cauley-Stein is a godsend for a Kings team whose perimeter play was exposed in stretches last season. The big man’s presence alongside the continually improving Cousins down low will inject an edge in a perimeter unit sorely needing a jump start.
The pressure is on Cauley-Stein to make an impact, and revive a technique rarely seen in black and purple. The stage is set and the carpet is clear for the 21-year-old to prove he’s the best shot blocker in Sacramento history.