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Kings’ Willie Cauley-Stein has skills he’ll gladly display

Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) is defended by Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein (00) during an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Detroit Pistons guard Reggie Jackson (1) is defended by Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein (00) during an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Auburn Hills, Mich. The Associated Press

The Kings’ Willie Cauley-Stein faced up against Andre Drummond, the Detroit Pistons’ rugged center, and did the unpredictable.

During the second quarter Monday, Cauley-Stein was near the 3-point line, where he was expected to give the ball to Ty Lawson or anyone else to dribble.

Instead, Cauley-Stein put the ball on the floor and drove past Drummond for a two-handed dunk. Drummond looked stunned, because the scouting report probably noted DeMarcus Cousins, not Cauley-Stein, would try that move.

Cauley-Stein, however, has been working all season to make a play like that.

Ever since Dave Joerger and his coaching staff came aboard, they have emphasized improving Cauley-Stein’s all-around skills, including dribbling and perimeter shooting. Now that the second-year center is playing more, he is comfortable demonstrating his development.

I feel like my mental focus the last four games has been really on. I’ve been really in the zone. Now I can figure out how to play with this group of guys and the way our coaches want us to play. I’ve figured it out. I’m really confident in what I’m doing.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings center

Drafted primarily for his defensive abilities, Cauley-Stein wants to show he’s becoming more versatile.

“Now it’s just picking and choosing when I can expand out and do some things and go back into (a complementary) role,” he said. “It’s just stuff that’s going to happen because I work on it every day, so it’s just going to happen.”

That was the case with the drive against Drummond in the Kings’ 109-104 win.

“It just happened,” Cauley-Stein said. “I read it. We weren’t even supposed to run that type of play. It was just reading and reacting; it’s big right now.”

After getting inconsistent minutes as a rookie, Cauley-Stein is playing less – from 21.4 minutes per game last season to 11.2 this season. Last season, Cauley-Stein appeared in 66 games, starting 39. This season, he has played in 37 games with no starts.

In his last three games, though, Cauley-Stein averaged 15.3 minutes. Against Detroit, he scored a season-high 12 points and helped the Kings shore up some shaky defense early in the game.

“He’s just putting in his work and he had an opportunity,” Joerger said. “Went and got balls out of his area, which is important for a guy that athletic. Finished at the rim, got a couple tip-ins. He was loud in transition defensively and in pick-and-roll and he gave Jon Leuer a little bit of a different look. Jon got comfortable in the first quarter (scoring 15 points) because nobody was around him.”

Cauley-Stein’s playing time has been sporadic, depending on how the Kings start games. If they use Cousins and Kosta Koufos together, Cauley-Stein might see action as the third center. When Cousins starts and Koufos is on the bench, minutes for Cauley-Stein are harder to find.

Still, Cauley-Stein has kept up his regimen, staying ready through workouts with assistant coaches.

12Willie Cauley-Stein’s season-high point total Monday against Detroit

“I feel like my mental focus the last four games has been really on,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’ve been really in the zone. Now I can figure out how to play with this group of guys and the way our coaches want us to play. I’ve figured it out. I’m really confident in what I’m doing.”

Cauley-Stein knows he must maintain his focus. With Cousins and Koufos, Joerger has two veteran centers he can trust and, in Cousins’ case, an All-Star.

Cauley-Stein stays encouraged knowing his work is paying off with plays like Monday’s dunk.

“It’s a great feeling to know when you’ve put (the ball) down, you’ve got complete control of where it’s going,” Cauley-Stein said. “The same thing with your shot. The more and more you work on it, the more and more it comes second nature and it all feels good. I’m excited about the next few weeks, the next game. We’ve just got to keep it rolling.”

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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