Willie Cauley-Stein’s defense is what made him worthy of being a lottery pick in the NBA draft.
But in his third season, he’s still fighting the belief he should focus on defense and rebounding while making offense an afterthought.
Cauley-Stein won another round of that argument Wednesday, scoring a season-high 26 points in Sacramento’s 113-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center.
After the game there wasn’t much negative talk about Cauley-Stein’s defense, because who talks defense when you’re scoring a season high?
“When you’re a little more involved on offense, your defense is going to take off,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s anybody in the league – I think that’s why it seems like ‘he’s more active’ (on defense). Well, I’m involved.”
On a night that was supposed to be a showcase for Kings rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox to take on Lonzo Ball, Cauley-Stein provided the most highlights.
He’s scored at least 18 points in three of his last four games – all while coming off the bench – and was flying to catch lobs on Wednesday or posting up smaller Lakers in making 10 of 14 shots.
He said he’s “at a good place right now” and knows to attack the rim when he’s not making his jump shot. And he’s not letting bad shooting stop him. He missed six of his seven shots in Monday’s loss to Denver but stayed aggressive on offense against the Lakers.
“I don’t think there’s any bigs in this league that can guard me off the bounce, so I’m quick enough where I can get past big dudes and strong enough when there’s a little guy on me I can just take him in the post,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m starting to find my package a little bit, I’m starting to get in my bag and I’ve got a few tricks to get fouls and try to get going a little bit more.”
Still, Cauley-Stein knows there will be those who scoff at a career 7.8 point per game scorer “finding” his offense in his third season. They’ll still clamor for more rebounds (he had six Wednesday) and more blocked shots and defense.
Cauley-Stein hears the criticism, but he won’t be forced into a defense-only box.
“I’m not real active around the rim the way people want me to be,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’ve got some mental things with that, that people never understand until it happens to you.”
Cauley-Stein is still haunted by some of the injuries he’s suffered playing around the rim defensively. That includes having to receive 35 stitches in his hand at one point.
He also dislocated his finger as a rookie when he hit his hand on the backboard after blocking a shot.
“When I’m under the rim I’m real cognitive like, shoot I know I should go get this but nah, I’m not messing with it,” Cauley-Stein said. “So it’s a mental battle when you get injured, you’re thinking about it. It’s just something you have to battle through.”
There won’t be as much attention paid to defense on a night like Wednesday when the Kings shoot a season-high 55.3 percent from the field and three players have at least seven assists.
Zach Randolph had season highs in points (22) and assists (seven) and also had seven rebounds. Rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic had 14 points and a season-high seven assists. Rookie Frank Mason had 11 points and a season-high seven assists.
But it was Cauley-Stein’s energy that fueled a hot-shooting second-half, when he scored 21 of his points and the Kings shot 68.6 percent, their best shooting half of the season.
“His ability to shoot the ball has caused bigs to have to guard him and then he’s able to use his athleticism,” said Kings guard Garrett Temple. “When you’re 7-foot and you can put the ball on the ground and move like that, a lot of credit has to go to Larry Lewis, our player development guy.”
Cauley-Stein said his battle will be consistency. He said the energy he plays with won’t change every night, but the results could fluctuate with his shot.
But he plans to make performances like Wednesday’s the norm.
“It’s gotta be,” Cauley-Stein. “I think that gives us the best chance of winning or being in games, if I’m playing super aggressive, putting a lot of pressure on the rim and making free throws. It’s a lot of fun to watch and it’s a lot more fun to play that way, I’ll tell you that.”