Stop running, Willie.
The expectations aren’t going anywhere.
The sixth overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft does not get the luxury of easing into his third season. Willie Cauley-Stein might as well embrace the expectations, rather than be dogged by them.
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The 7-footer needs to be engaged and active nightly. Run the floor, finish at the rim, put pressure on the defense with his athleticism. In short, excel at doing the simple things.
Those aren’t unrealistic expectations. He admits he hasn’t played at his best this season, and there’s no better time than now to “get loose,” as he puts it. The path has been cleared for him as the starting center, so there are no excuses. This season is about development, and he has the opportunity to show he can be the team’s center of the future.
“I’m trying to get back to just hooping and not worrying about expectations,” Cauley-Stein said recently. “That’s what I did (Thursday) and the last game (Tuesday) was the start of it.”
Consistency is a good place to start.
In his first two seasons, some of Cauley-Stein’s best play has come after the All-Star break and when playoffs are out of sight and opponents might be tanking. Not the stiffest competition, in other words.
After 11 games, Cauley-Stein is trying to rediscover his play from the end of 2016-17, when he averaged 12.9 points and 8.1 rebounds after DeMarcus Cousins was traded.
He entered Saturday averaging 8.9 points and 6.0 rebounds. But if his shots aren’t falling, it saps him of his energy, which is perhaps his greatest asset that also fuels his teammates.
And what’s an energy player without energy? A player that will find himself watching from the bench, more than playing.
“When my energy level is high, everybody matches it, and it’s just fun to play that way,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s my challenge on myself, coming aggressive and going out there like nobody can stop me. That’s how I’m going to start playing.”
So what’s stopping him? It’s really in his head, learning how to handle the high hopes, the outside pressure.
“When Willie’s really locked in, he’s great,” said rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox. “When he’s getting rebounds and he’s more athletic than the other team’s big, not only being able to jump, but being able to move. He runs, he played football, played receiver, so he’s able to run like a guard. It’s just great when he comes out ready to play.”
He did just that against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, when he scored 15 points and had a key block of Joel Embiid in the final minute to help the Kings win 109-108.
“I’m going to start being a lot more aggressive,” Cauley-Stein said. “I don’t feel like any (center) in the league can guard me off the dribble. So when they start playing me real tight, I’m just going to go around them and get into my bag.”
It was clear playing Embiid, one of the most talented big men in the NBA, brought more vigor out of Cauley-Stein.
“I’ve been wanting to see this matchup for a while,” Cauley-Stein said after the game. “I’m hyphy that I could just play with him and we both had a really good game and made it interesting.”
Cauley-Stein won’t play Embiid every night, so he needs to find a reason to be “hyphy” (or hyperactive for those running to Google it) on a game-by-game basis. The aggression, the frenetic play his teammates love to see are musts.
It’s vital to the Kings’ success for years to come.
Per Elias Sports Bureau, Fox’s game winner Thursday against Philadelphia made him the youngest player (19) in the last five seasons to make a game-winning shot in the final 30 seconds of regulation or overtime.
Skal Labissiere has seen a dip in his playing time lately, averaging 11 minutes over his last four games, averaging 3.0 points.
There’s no reason to panic. In a lot of ways this is still Labissiere’s rookie season. He only played in 33 games last season, or less than half the season. And no amount of time in the G-League equates to NBA action.
Expect some ups and downs for Labissiere this season.
The Kings play at Washington on Monday, the squad that humiliated them at home last month by leading by as many as 38 points.
If anything, the Kings shouldn’t look lifeless – as they did for a lot of that game – in the rematch.