Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Vlade Divac ignores distractions, thinks big in NBA Draft

Willie Cauley-Stein, right, poses for photos with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected sixth overall by the Sacramento Kings during the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 25, 2015, in New York.
Willie Cauley-Stein, right, poses for photos with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected sixth overall by the Sacramento Kings during the NBA basketball draft, Thursday, June 25, 2015, in New York. AP

The Kings have some explaining to do. No, a ton of explaining to do. This was a bit of a head-scratcher. Interesting, intriguing, puzzling. The team with an All-Star center used the No.6 pick Thursday in the NBA Draft and selected ... another center.

This, in a league trending small.

This, in a league coveting versatility.

This, after an onslaught of speculation about the future of DeMarcus Cousins, his strained relationship with head coach George Karl, and exhaustive pre-draft television coverage listing the Kings glaring needs for playmakers, shooters and rim protectors.

So, ok, we're listening. You have our attention. Willie Cauley-Stein, the lanky 7-foot junior from Kentucky, is a rim protector. No doubt about that. After the season finale in Sleep Train Arena, when Cousins was asked which draft prospect he endorsed, he said, without hesitation, "Willie Cauley-Stein." There is that, too. It never hurts when the team's best player - a fellow Wildcat alum no less - picks the guy out of a crowd who he wants to cover his back.

But 6-feet-11 and 7-feet combines for a massive frontline in a decade when the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors won championships without a dominant big man. The exception, of course, are the Dallas Mavericks, who captured the 2011 title with Tyson Chandler dominating the interior, then blew their chances for a repeat by refusing to re-sign the 7-foot center when he became a free agent weeks later.

So there indeed are times when it is wise to swim against the tide. Highly regarded ESPN analyst Jay Bilas late Thursday described Cauley-Stein as "one of the most interesting prospects I can remember" and offered a comparison with the veteran Chandler. "He is an absolute freak athlete who can run the floor with great speed. He has a 7-3 wingspan. He can get steals, block shots, protect the rim. He's not a big time rebounder ... is not an offensive player. Lob it up, he goes and gets it. But his value is going to be, 'put him in a pick and roll situation, he can switch on anybody.' We always talk about guys guarding multiple positions. Willie Cauley-Stein literally can guard every position on the floor."

Within the past few days, Kings vice-president Vlade Divac and his front office executives and scouts debated from a group of players projected to fall within the 6-10 range, among them Cauley-Stein, small forwards Mario Hezonja and Justise Winslow, point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and power forward Kristaps Porzingis.

With Porzingis (New York) and Hezonja (Orlando) already off the board, and Mudiay refusing to work out for the Kings after playing a mere 12 games last year in China, Divac went with the best available player - Cauley-Stein - who also happens to fill a need; the long-limbed Kansas native is a superb shotblocker and interior defender, which should immediately improve a team that finished 27th overall last season in defensive efficiency.

The post-draft discussion will persist for days, weeks and probably months, of course, with offseasons to be legitimately judged only after free agency and trades are completed, and the 2015-16 roster is submitted to the league office in late October.

But the Kings certainly aren't lacking for attention. Drama? Theater? Isn't Hollywood located about 500 miles south of here? In the hours preceding the annual draft, the Kings morphed into rumor central, generated more tube/twitter/radio time than they have in decades.

Before NBA Commissioner Adam Silver revealed the Kings selection, several media outlets reported that Cousins was being aggressively shopped, that majority owner Vivek Ranadive was considering firing Karl, that small forward Rudy Gay, Nik Stauskas, Ben McLemore - the entire roster, in essence - were available.

As always this time of year, and among the routine deception and misdirection plays that characterize the annual talent grab bag, there are nuggets of truth hidden deep within the nonsense. Divac was determined to regain Cousins unless an organization offered him the sun, the moon, the stars - a boatload of assets, in other words; Ranadive and Divac are both concerned about Cousins' reluctance to embrace Karl's collaborative offensive system that emphasizes pacing, spacing, ball and body movement, and utilizes their 6-foot-11 big man at different spots on the floor; and Divac, in particular, believes that while he has a future Hall of Fame coach under contract, he wants Karl to extend a longer olive branch and leave personnel matters to the front office executives.

"Today was the story about coach and Vivek (Ranadive), but I want to make sure ... it was a problem," said Divac, who declined to elaborate. "But it wasn't Vivek and George. It was me and George. So I am here to talk with the media, with the agents, and I respect my coach and think he's great. But he has to trust me to do my job."

Asked if he believes Cousins and Karl can co-exist peacefully, he replied, "I want to believe, and we'll see how it goes."

The Karl-Cousins meet-and-greet in fact lasted a mere 19 games - occurring after Michael Malone was fired Dec. 14, interim coach Tyrone Corbin was doomed by a two-month long player rebellion/work stoppage and Ranadive insisted on hiring the accomplished successful Karl, much to the dismay of Cousins' agents and former Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro.

D'Alessandro wanted Chris Mullin to become head coach at season's end. Dan Fegan argued that Karl was too demanding for his improving, but moody client. Karl nonetheless was eager to coach the talented Cousins, who had played for Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Malone and Corbin in his four-plus seasons. And though he often griped about the faster-paced offense to his teammates, the sixth-year veteran reluctantly complied - and averaged an impressive 24.8 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists.

With the addition of Cauley-Stein - and assuming Cousins sticks around - Karl and the Kings become increasingly entwined. Some draft experts argue that Cousins and Cauley-Stein are an odd fit, with both big men crowding the post.

For the Kings to improve upon last year's 29-win season, it will be incumbent upon Karl, who is long known for his innovative offenses, to design a system that exploits' Cauley-Stein's quickness and athleticism and Cousins' skilled, muscular, superior versatility.

All that other stuff? The rumors, innuendo, speculation. “When you win,” Divac added, as he walked away, “none of that stuff matters.”

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