Willie Cauley-Stein won’t allow you to stereotype him just because he’s a known as a good defender.
So Friday night, the rookie from Kentucky did some things he said he’d never done in a basketball game.
That’s how the 7-foot rookie, who has been labeled a defensive prodigy but an offensive liability, ending up testing out his three-point range.
A lot went right for Cauley-Stein, who came off the bench to score a career-high 26 points in the Kings’ 116-94 rout of the Phoenix Suns at Sleep Train Arena. The Kings had lost seven straight home games
Even though he missed both of his late-game threes, Cauley-Stein still shot 11 of 19.
“I ain’t put 19 shots up in my whole life so that was cool ... that was different, but I like that though,” Cauley-Stein said.
With the goal of the playoffs remote at best, the final 10 games of the season should shift focus to getting Cauley-Stein, the Kings’ first-round draft pick last year, and third-year guard Seth Curry, developing for next season.
Curry made the first start of his NBA career Friday, and Cauley-Stein showed off a lot of what he’s worked on in practice, skills that make him more than just a defender.
Cauley-Stein scored on dunks but also showed nimble footwork working against defenders.
“I’ve been drilling it and drilling it for months now and to get a chance to put it in a game setting, and use it at game speed, and a defender’s playing you, you’ve got to read a defender,” Cauley-Stein said. “Just putting it all together is what you work for and that’s why it’s fun to play like that.”
Cauley-Stein also had six rebounds, three steals and two blocks. He became the first Kings rookie to score 25 or more points since Ben McLemore had 31 against Phoenix on April 16, 2014.
The last Kings rookie with 25 or more points off the bench was DeMarcus Cousins, March 2, 2011, against Portland with 28 points.
Playing time has been up-and-down lately for the rookie, but Cauley-Stein’s teammates encouraged him to be a scorer against the Suns, whose depth in the frontcourt was hindered by injuries.
“When your teammates are telling you to score, shoot threes when you ain’t shot a three in your whole life, so that’s cool,” Cauley-Stein said. “That just makes you feel really good, like all the work you put in, they’re telling you to show what you’ve been working on. I’m really thankful for them.”
Kings coach George Karl doesn’t necessarily want Cauley-Stein working on threes, saying he’s “at least a year away” from being a player with that kind of game.
But Karl liked Cauley-Stein’s energy Friday night.
“He’s worked real hard on his game, and it was good to see him have an offensive game where he could take some chances, take some opportunity,” Karl said. “I think it will help him see what he can do in this game now, his work has paid off a little bit.”
Curry found out Friday morning he was going to start. He promptly missed his first four shots of the game.
“I felt like I was playing well defensively and being in attack mode,” Curry said. “I had my rhythm, I just wasn’t making shots.”
Curry got going in the second half and ended up shooting 4 for 10 and scoring 12 points. Knowing he was still going to stay in the game after a slow start helped.
“You can get rhythm, you can make adjustments, too,” Curry said. “I knew were I could find and get better shots ... I think you saw in the second half we made some good adjustments and we were able to run away with it.”
Moments to do that have been rare this season. He’s appeared in only 33 games this season.
“(Curry) has a tenacity to him, a good basketball feel to him,” Karl said. “Now he’s just got to be confident and consistent. You’ve got to get minutes to do that. You can’t do that sporadically getting minutes, and it’s hard to play a season when you never know when you’re going to play.”
That could change to finish out the season.
“He’s been a good pro, a very good pro and hopefully we can give him some more minutes these next 10 games,” Karl said.
Rondo set a new record for assists in a season in Sacramento history with his 789th of the season, sixth of the game, by setting up Rudy Gay for a three-pointer with 7:10 left in the third quarter. Reggie Theus set the previous record of 788 in 1985-86.
Rondo, the NBA leader in assists, finished with 12.
DeMarcus Cousins led the Kings with 29 points and 11 rebounds in just 28 minutes. He did not play in the fourth quarter. The Kings lost guard Marco Belinelli (sore right foot) in the first half.