Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein had been in Tuesday night’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans for less than six minutes when coach Dave Joerger called him back to the bench.
“I thought he was gassed,” Joerger said. “And that’s all we’re asking.”
Cauley-Stein, in his second season, is still working out his role in the league and doing so under a new coaching staff. But the Kings’ message to him has hardly changed since he was the sixth overall pick in 2015 out of Kentucky: When on the court, play those minutes hard.
“My main thing to him is just make sure he always has a high energy level,” fellow big man DeMarcus Cousins said. “When Willie plays with high energy, he doesn’t have to score a basket. Just his presence alone changes the game.”
In the Kings’ 102-94 win Tuesday, Cauley-Stein offered a glimpse of his impact. He played just 12 minutes off the bench but totaled three rebounds and three blocks to go with nine points on 4-of-6 shooting. He also picked up five fouls.
“The energy that he brought is the biggest deal,” Joerger said after the game. “When he … gets to the rim, (it) seems like it gets all those guys going a little bit. But he’s up there fullcourt, shadowing the other team’s point guard. He’s fronting a guy, comes over and gets a blocked shot. He’s running the floor.”
The impetus for that energetic performance?
“Just tired of not playing,” Cauley-Stein said.
So far in his second season, Cauley-Stein has been in a cycle of playing limited minutes and trying to make an impression during those minutes to earn more. He said those circumstances affected his play through the first eight games, leading him to be somewhat timid.
“Not making mistakes so you can stay on the floor,” he said. “And you can’t play like that. You can’t play looking over your shoulder wondering when you’re going to come out. And that’s what I’ve been doing, and (Tuesday) was kind of the change for me.”
After not playing in two of the five games on the recent trip, including the finale Sunday against the Toronto Raptors, Cauley-Stein said he took an attitude of “stop thinking and just play” against New Orleans. The result was his best game of the season.
“That’s what I’ve been battling the last couple weeks is just not worrying about it,” Cauley-Stein said. “You’re going to come out anyway, so you might as well go as hard as you can as long as you’re in there.”
While Joerger and the Kings’ coaches have pushed for Cauley-Stein to become more of an offensive threat, the athletic 7-footer said he knows “flying around” the court, “being annoying on defense and stuff like that” form the foundation of his game.
An example Tuesday came in a third-quarter sequence that started with Cauley-Stein blocking a layup attempt by Pelicans guard Tim Frazier. After another New Orleans miss, Matt Barnes fired an outlet pass to Rudy Gay, who found Cauley-Stein running up the court for an alley-oop dunk.
“It felt like I played longer than (12 minutes) because of how hard I went,” Cauley-Stein said. “When you start playing 18 to 20 minutes going that hard, it’s going to feel like you played 40, and your numbers are going to look like you played 40.”
With a new coaching staff and several incoming veterans, Cauley-Stein said he knew he would have to work to earn their trust early in the season. He admitted sporadic playing time is frustrating.
“You’ve just got to force them to play your card,” he said. “So that’s exactly what kind of mindset I’m on is I’ve got to force them to let them know that I’m here. I’m trying to win like the rest of us.”
And if he ever feels too negative, the young center has a support group of mostly family members who aren’t shy about setting him straight.
“They don’t like seeing you go below your potential, so they’re going to stay in your ear,” Cauley-Stein said. “Especially my grandma and my aunts. They be on me heavy.”