Willie Cauley-Stein enters a pivotal year in his career knowing his fate and his future with the Kings will hinge on four little syllables.
The 7-foot center has a tantalizing combination of size, skills and athleticism, but Kings general manager Vlade Divac wants to see consistency before he will consider offering him a contract extension, and the clock is ticking. Cauley-Stein can become a restricted free agent next summer.
“Consistent rebounder, consistent energy guy, consistent running the floor, those kinds of things,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “Consistent motor — day in, day out — whether it be practice or games. It’s in there. It’s in there. He’s got it in there.”
Everyone knows it’s in there. They’ve seen it before.
There was a crackling air of intrigue inside Golden 1 Center on Feb. 23, 2017, as fans filed into the arena to see what the Kings could do without DeMarcus Cousins. Some bemoaned the controversial decision to trade the All-Star center. Others were eager to usher in a new era of Kings basketball after seven seasons under the thumb of the brooding big man.
At the end of the night, those fans were on their feet, wildly cheering the effort of Cauley-Stein, the understudy who broke out in a big way in his first opportunity to shine outside Cousins’ imposing shadow. Cauley-Stein posted a career-high 29 points and 10 rebounds, leading the Kings to a 116-100 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
“I said it when I first got here, I’m trying to be that player,” Cauley-Stein, the sixth pick in the 2015 NBA draft, said after that game. “And you have to go 35 minutes intense, so that’s my goal. I’m going hard whenever I’m in there and whatever happens, happens.”
When the Kings played the Charlotte Hornets 48 hours later, Cauley-Stein was almost invisible. He finished with two points and two rebounds, one of the many examples of his inconsistency.
Cauley-Stein created a stir on the eve of training camp when he told NBC Sports California: “I’m ready to get paid.”
He later clarified his remarks.
“I think that got put out of context a little bit,” Cauley-Stein said. “Made it look like I was just worried about this money. But I meant that in the sense of, ‘What do I need to do to get that?’ Not that, ‘Oh, I deserve to get this. I’ve done this, this and that.’ No. Like, what do you want me to do? Tell me what you need me to do to get that, and I’m going to get it done, and that’s what I meant by that.”
Divac addressed that question when he met with Cauley-Stein before training camp began, detailing the organization’s expectations.
“They made it pretty clear,” Cauley-Stein said. “Dominate both sides of the floor and what you think is going to happen is going to happen, so that’s what I came here to do.”
Cauley-Stein averaged career highs of 12.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists last season, but he believes he’s capable of more. He was in bed at a downtown Philadelphia hotel about 2:40 a.m. on Dec. 18 when his self-improvement plan started with a text message to Vince Carter, who served as a veteran mentor with the Kings last season.
“I was laying in bed manifesting my thoughts, goals I wanted to see happen in my future, wondering how does a young man like myself even begin to start thinking of asserting myself as one of the most elite players in the game of basketball,” Cauley-Stein wrote in an Instagram post. “I text (Carter) and told him I want to be THE GUY. He began to explain to me the sacrifices it takes to be THAT GUY.”
Carter, who is now with the Atlanta Hawks, told Cauley-Stein to perfect his craft and work on the mental aspect of the game while continuing to get stronger and healthier.
Cauley-Stein took that advice to heart. He hired a mental coach and a personal chef. He also took his training to the next level.
“I’ve worked on my body this summer, my balance and everything,” said Cauley-Stein, who is entering his fourth NBA season. “Last year, when I was driving, it looked like I was off-balance. Well, that’s not happening now. I went and corrected that body part, and now it’s like all my chakras are aligned. Body, mind, spirit, everything is good.”
Teammates have noticed a difference.
“His leadership,” Kings forward Skal Labissiere said. “He’s been more vocal than he has in the past, this year and last year a little bit, so that’s a good thing for us.”
Rookie forward Marvin Bagley III said he sees leadership qualities, too.
“I’m learning from him,” Bagley said. “We want to get each other better. We’re competing every day in practice, but Willie’s helping me out a lot. He’s helping me out with different things, not only on the court, but how to do things off the court. He’s really been a big help for me.”
Cauley-Stein said he would prefer to continue his career in Sacramento.
“I love it here,” he said. “If it’s here — hell yeah.”
Joerger said Cauley-Stein will get his chance to prove himself to the organization.
“He’s had a terrific opportunity and he’ll continue to have a good opportunity here to showcase his skills,” Joerger said.
Cauley-Stein insists he is ready.
“I believe in the work that I put in for the last three years,” he said. “I really believe this is my time to let it go, just release myself to the game, stop thinking so much and just play in oblivion.”