Year three of the Willie Cauley-Stein experiment is almost complete and it’s a mixed bag of opinions to say the least.
Drafted No. 6 overall in the 2015 NBA draft, Cauley-Stein was the first of many draft selections under the Vlade Divac-led front office.
The thought when drafting Cauley-Stein was to bring in a lengthy, high energy, rim protector to come off the bench and learn from his predecessor in DeMarcus Cousins, helping to build depth in the front court for years to come.
Under then head coach George Karl, Cauley-Stein had many encouraging moments with his development and growth starting 39 games for the Sacramento Kings as a rookie averaging seven points, 5.3 rebounds and one block per game.
Cauley-Stein finished the year receiving All-Rookie 2nd Team honors and took positive steps in the right direction to help solidify his role in the main rotation.
Going into year two, we saw two major organizational decisions made with the firing of head coach George Karl, which led to the hiring of Dave Joerger, former Memphis Grizzlies head coach. Then the blockbuster trade of Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans for Buddy Hield, a first round draft pick and other players no longer on the roster.
After the Cousins trade this opened the door and gave opportunity to Cauley-Stein to seize that center position in the Kings’ long-term plans.
While in year two under coach Joerger, there were many flashes of Cauley-Stein’s potential with highflying dunks, alley-oops, and using his length to his defensive advantage.
But with a new coach, came a new scheme, new blood, and a whole new identity. These changes didn’t benefit Cauley-Stein when first implemented as fans and experts alike began to question whether Cauley-Stein was even worth continuing to develop.
Cauley-Stein finished averaging 8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in the 2016-2017 season.
Historically, many consider year three of an NBA career to be the most crucial to see new heights of production on both ends of the floor, or, in other words, a make or break year to find yourself in the rotation on a consistent basis.
The question coming into the 2017-18 season was whether or not Willie Cauley-Stein was ready to make the leap from young player to productive veteran presence showing the youth how to thrive on both ends of the court.
Through 54 games, Cauley-Stein is posting career highs of 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. As the learning curve is starting to shrink, less thinking is happening, and playing the game of basketball naturally is coming back to him. He is beginning to do the little things that don’t necessarily show up on the box score from game to game.
Whether it’s forcing an opponent to take an extra step on a drive to the rim, poking a ball away that leads to an eventual fast break, picking up a second defender to help with a set screen on the pick and roll, Cauley-Stein has seemed to find his groove the last couple of weeks minus the unforeseen right knee bone contusion that left him unavailable to play last week.
While encouraging seeing this growth we weren’t seeing this type of Cauley-Stein playing this well on both sides of the court at the beginning of the season.
An occasional double-double every five games was becoming the norm for Cauley-Stein as the team needed more from him on a consistent basis.
And so the perception of Cauley-Stein continued to teeter back and forth on what the Kings were going to get from him on a nightly basis.
In his past 10 games, the 24 year old has averaged 13.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. The difference in his improved play is his aggressive approach on both ends.
Before Zach Randolph joined the roster, Cauley-Stein seemed to be very passive and stop his drive as soon as someone stepped in his way forcing a low percentage of shot attempts.
As he has developed and learned from two future Hall of Famers in Randolph and Vince Carter throughout the current season, he has established a more aggressive mindset and has truly benefited from it.
He has posted his highest player efficiency rating of his career at 17.6, which is second on the team to Randolph’s leading player efficiency rating of 18.5.
This included nights where he may have not scored enough to impact the game but found other ways to lead his team to victory whether it be his seven steals against the Denver Nuggets in January or his most complete game of the season against the Orlando Magic at a clip of 21 points and nine rebounds helping to halt the Kings’ losing streak at eight games.
Not only has he gotten more aggressive in the post, but his significantly improved 15-foot jump shot from his rookie season to now has paid dividends forcing defenders to come out to guard his open shots.
This allows more open lanes for Cauley-Stein to get those long arms up and over his defenders for easy two hand slams.
Cauley-Stein is on record saying that he wants to be a player who can carry the Kings offensively.
“I think I definitely want to be in that role,” Cauley-Stein told Jason Jones of the SacBee. “I’m trying to work for that role, I work every day for that role. I manifest that role and eventually that’s going to be my role.”
Cauley-Stein is on the rise in terms of his efficiency and production but now it’s a matter of putting together a long string of games on a consistent basis to solidify his role as the starting center for this youth movement here in Sacramento.