Two prized rookies made their NBA debuts in the Kings’ season opener Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center, but Willie Cauley-Stein proved he’s still the best big man on the roster.
The 7-foot center put his entire repertoire on display against one of the league’s most elite defenders, scoring in a variety of ways in a 123-117 loss to the Utah Jazz. Cauley-Stein scored 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting with seven rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, keeping the Kings close against a team that beat them by 39 points in a preseason game a week ago.
“When the lights come on, if you don’t come to play, you’ll get beat by 40,” Cauley-Stein said. “We needed that so you get that feeling, like, ‘Damn, we got beat by 40?’ You can’t get beat by 40. The way we came out today was like, ‘We’re not ever going to get beat by 40 again.’ Not if we play like that.”
Cauley-Stein held his own against Utah center Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA. Gobert finished with 19 points, 15 rebounds and three blocked shots, but Cauley-Stein was just as impressive, scoring on lobs, layups, putback dunks and a pretty turnaround jump shot.
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“Willie was great. ... Guys don’t like getting hit in their body and that’s one thing Willie did today,” said Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox, who had 21 points and seven assists. “He didn’t shy away from contact. He went straight at them and that’s a testament to what he’s done this summer. People have seen him work. He had a great training camp.”
Cauley-Stein had two early buckets to help the Kings race to a 25-9 lead in the first eight minutes of the game. The Jazz mounted a 16-2 run to cut the deficit to two and took a 35-34 lead on a 3-pointer by Alec Burks early in the second quarter.
The Kings briefly regained the lead a couple of times when Cauley-Stein scored on a hanging layup and a turnaround jumper, but the Jazz quickly opened up a 10-point lead and carried a 68-55 advantage at halftime.
Utah led by as many as 14 in the third quarter, but Sacramento battled back. Cauley-Stein scored on a jump hook and blocked shots on the next two defensive possessions, leading to a jumper by Fox and a 3-pointer by Yogi Ferrell.
A layup by Cauley-Stein cut Utah’s lead to three. A 3-pointer by Ferrell gave the Kings a 75-73 lead with 6:53 to play in the third period.
The Jazz reestablished a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. The Kings cut the deficit to five with under a minute remaining, but they couldn’t get any closer.
“It was a good effort,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “Guys competed (and) attacked. We had 34 points in the first quarter. We got off to a quick start. Last week (against Utah), we had 34 points in the first half. ... I can’t fault our effort whatsoever. We just scored 117 points on the No. 1 defense in the league.”
Donovan Mitchell scored a game-high 24 points for Utah. Joe Ingles had 22 points.
Buddy Hield scored 19 points for the Kings. Nemanja Bjelica posted 18 points and eight rebounds.
Rookies Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III combined to play less than 22 minutes in their NBA debuts. Bagley finished with six points and five rebounds. Giles had two points, one rebound and one assist, picking up four personal fouls in less than 10 minutes.
“There were a couple spots where we got stagnant and that’s when they made their runs, which is going to happen when you have a young team like this, especially when we put our second group in,” Cauley-Stein said. “We have two rookies coming off the bench who have to get pivotal minutes to really learn that role.
“We’ve got to get them those minutes so they learn. The only way to learn is to play those minutes and they’re going to get them.”