Sacramento Kings

Kings’ Willie Cauley-Stein gaining confidence, ‘playing free’

hamezcua@sacbee.com

Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein took advantage of the All-Star break to spend a few days at his alma mater, Kentucky.

But this was no casual visit. Rather than use the break to rest, Cauley-Stein said he did the opposite, working out hard in Lexington with Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne.

“I didn’t want to tease myself,” Cauley-Stein said. “If I were to take the whole break off, I would have come back out of shape, and it would be miserable to get back into shape. So I just took the liberty of killing myself through the break.”

I didn’t want to tease myself. If I were to take the whole break off, I would have come back out of shape, and it would be miserable to get back into shape. So I just took the liberty of killing myself through the break.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings rookie center

That, Cauley-Stein said, meant workouts similar to ones he did as a Wildcat – only more intense. Sprints leading directly into drills for shots, ballhandling and footwork. Dunking a weighted medicine ball 50 times with sprints in between.

“Just running,” he said, “a bunch of conditioning.”

As a result, the rookie returned from his first NBA All-Star break feeling as if he “hadn’t skipped a beat.” After scoring 10 points in each of his first two games back against Denver and totaling five blocks, Cauley-Stein contributed 12 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes Wednesday night in the Kings’ loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

It was the sixth time in seven games that Cauley-Stein had scored in double digits, matching his total for the first 35 games of his career. In the past seven games, Cauley-Stein has averaged 11.3 points per game in 22 minutes and shot 70.6 percent (36 of 51) from the field.

“I think we see every night that he’s getting the confidence out there that he didn’t have a month ago,” Kings coach George Karl said.

“My belief on Willie right now is he’s understanding the pro game, understanding how he can get involved in the pro game. He has a very good work ethic from the standpoint of putting in time on his weaknesses and skills. And he has a defensive dimension – his length and alertness on the defensive end of the court is something we need.”

Cauley-Stein agreed his confidence is high and said sustaining it is the reason he chose to spend the break working out at Kentucky. It’s also why he said he didn’t care when Karl replaced him with Quincy Acy in the Kings’ starting lineup coming out of the break to acquire more energy and defense to start each half.

“It doesn’t really matter at this point,” Cauley-Stein said before Wednesday’s game of his role. “I’m just so strong mentally right now, I’m in a good place where there’s not much anybody’s going to do to shake me.”

I think we see every night that he’s getting the confidence out there that he didn’t have a month ago.

George Karl, Kings coach

The 7-footer was active against the Spurs. Defending on the perimeter with three minutes left in the third quarter, Cauley-Stein reached out his long arms to steal a pass, drove the length of the court and finished with a left-handed layup. Early in the fourth quarter, he corralled a Kosta Koufos miss on the offensive glass and turned it into a putback dunk.

Forty-two games into his first professional season, Cauley-Stein said he’s gaining a better grasp of the Kings’ concepts and when to let his basketball instincts take over. As a result, he’s starting to feel more like he’s “just playing free.”

“That’s why I like going in on the second unit – I get to just play free,” Cauley-Stein said. “Eventually, the whole free game is about to come out. I’m getting to that point mentally where I just don’t care – that’s what it is.

“It’s almost like I feel like I’m playing pickup. And when you get to that point where you feel like you’re playing pickup – all the people that just play, like Boogie (DeMarcus Cousins) – that’s when it becomes powerful for you. You’re literally just playing. You’re out there thinking about instinctive stuff.”

Cauley-Stein hasn’t reached that level of comfort on the court this early in his career.

“I’m getting there,” he said, nodding. “Five more, six more games, I might be there.”

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