This is the season Willie Cauley-Stein will break out. Right?
Rookie lessons learned, sophomore season of indoctrination behind, it should be time for the third-year center to finally shine.
Not so fast. The Kings have rarely developed their young players according to plan over the last decade-plus. Not even the perpetually upbeat Cauley-Stein could escape the pitfalls that come with being surrounded by uncertainty.
“I think it’s tough, because normally your third year would be like that,” Cauley-Stein said of the potential to have a break out season. “But changing a whole coaching staff, changing the whole front office ... last year I feel like I was put in position to be a rookie all over again. So this year is kind of like year two for me in the sense that now I get to play and kind of experiment.”
That won’t silence critics who laughed at general manager Vlade Divac for using the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft on a player many saw as a potentially gifted defender with limited offensive capabilities.
In his first two seasons, Cauley-Stein seemed intent on proving his doubters wrong. But now he says he doesn’t care about that. The former Kentucky star understands this is a process, and he’s learned patience.
“At the end of the day people are going to talk regardless, whether you can do something or you can’t, they’re going to say you can’t do it,” Cauley-Stein said. “So you’ve just got to be mentally right. They’re not the ones in the gym countless hours. They’re not the ones doing all the stuff I’ve been doing. So you’ve got to keep that in the back of your head.”
He has worked on ballhandling, pull-up floaters in the lane and catching the ball on the run for shots or dunks. He believes it will show on the court, but understands it might take some time.
Last season, Cauley-Stein averaged 13 minutes in 50 games before the All-Star break and just 5.8 points and 2.7 rebounds. In the 25 after the break, after DeMarcus Cousins had been traded, his averages increased to 30.9 minutes, 12.9 points and 8.1 rebounds.
Now would be the ideal time to solidify himself as the big man to build around. Kosta Koufos could opt out of his contract at the end of the season and become a free agent. The Kings drafted a center in the first round, Georgios Papagiannis, a year after selecting Cauley-Stein.
Cauley-Stein expects Koufos and Zach Randolph might play more than him at center to begin the season.
But it’s “a big year” and “a heck of an opportunity” for him, Kings coach Dave Joerger said.
“If he’s getting up and down the floor and being a high-motor guy and getting tips and rebounding – we’re going to have a issue with our rebounding this year, it’s going to be a struggle for us – he’s going to need to get as many as he can,” Joerger said. “... Show me more. The box gets bigger.”
Cauley-Stein feels he is more capable of playing through mistakes. Last year, he said he felt pressured to “do the right stuff at all times.”
“This year I feel like I get to play a little bit more freely, more confident and have encouragement behind it,” he said, “encouraging me to, ‘Look at yourself; be more selfish.’ So that’s kind of the point of where I am now.”