If NBA teams scored points for drafting rookies with charisma, poise and intelligence, the Kings would start the 2015-16 season with a 10-point lead.
Willie Cauley-Stein is quite the charmer. He said he was delighted to be the new sheriff in town – OK, the new 7-footer in town – and worked hard Saturday to prove his point.
Within about a seven-hour span, the No. 6 overall pick in Thursday’s draft did the following: sampled fruits and vegetables at a midtown farmer’s market; was whisked to a meet-and-greet at basketball courts south of Sacramento; was formally introduced during a noon news conference at the Experience Center that overlooks the arena construction site; dropped in at the U.S. Senior Open at Del Paso Country Club; and schmoozed and served ice cream at Gunther’s.
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There were no reported sightings of the Kentucky junior kissing babies, but maybe tomorrow.
“And he used to be sooooo quiet,” his mother, Marlene Stein, said with a laugh while watching her son accommodate a crowd of reporters after the formal media session. “These last few years, he just became much more outgoing.”
According to his mother – and moms tend to know best about such matters – the personality makeover mostly occurred during his three seasons at Kentucky, the John Calipari-led program that offers the fastest route to the NBA.
But in this instance, think bus, not airlines. The latest Kings lottery prize is a product of small, small, small-town middle America. Raised by his mother and grandparents until his junior year of high school, Cauley-Stein spent his formative years in Spearville, Kan., a drive-through burg of approximately 800 residents 15 miles from Dodge City.
In a crowded year, he attended school with 20 classmates. On the town’s official website, the recommended restaurants include the Truck Stop, Windmill Restaurant (good chimichangas) and The Hideout, known for its ice cream, cinnamon rolls and sandwiches. The Boot Hill Museum, Boot Hill Casino and Windfarm tours headline the list of nearby attractions. Besides hunting and fishing, sports for girls and boys of all ages and for all seasons dominate the to-do list, which sort of explains Cauley-Stein’s boyhood passion for track, baseball, football and basketball.
“I hated that he played football,” said Marlene, who stands 6-2. “I was always afraid he was going to get hurt. I was glad when he gave it up. We had a hoop in the backyard, and we all played, aunts and uncles, cousins. I was recruited to the University of the Pacific and actually visited Stockton, but it was too far from home.”
When she accepted a job with an oral surgery group in Oklahoma City, Willie moved in with friends and finished his final two years of high school in Olathe, Kan., a Kansas City suburb. Though not as highly recruited as some of Calipari’s other prospects, the athletic, long-limbed Cauley-Stein attributes much of his development to the quality of the competition and the Wildcats’ pro-oriented style of play.
Cauley-Stein is 7-foot and 240 pounds with the wingspan of a 737, and the predraft scouting book on him pretty much reads as follows: superb shot blocker and rim protector, explosive runner with terrific hands (think lobs and dunks), excellent footwork and athleticism to defend multiple positions, but limited offensively.
The one red flag was the left foot stress fracture that required surgery after the 2014 NCAA Tournament. As the Kings’ 7-foot vice president, Vlade Divac, has acknowledged, the NBA has been very cruel to big men with bad feet and creaky knees of late. Yao Ming retired early because of foot problems. Nerlens Noel missed his rookie season while recuperating from a torn ACL. Joel Embiid recently experienced a setback in his yearlong recovery from a fractured foot.
Yet after an extensive investigation that included conversations with Cauley-Stein’s surgeon and Kentucky’s training staff, the Kings’ doctors gave Divac a thumbs up.
Additionally, Calipari said his former star enjoyed an injury-free, All-America junior season and envisioned a dominant Kings front line featuring Cauley-Stein and another of his former Wildcats, sixth-year veteran DeMarcus Cousins.
“Willie should play well with DC both on offense and defense,” said Calipari, who described Cauley-Stein as having a “curious” mind and a “blank slate” offensively. “They both do things the other doesn’t. Willie can play behind and give DeMarcus room inside and outside. And both can pass. How about going at small ball with skilled length? One big can cover out (Cauley-Stein) and the other in (Cousins). I like long at all positions. This was the right pick for the Kings.”
And about that personality. Divac’s next task will be to mediate an accord between coach George Karl and Cousins, who has complained to teammates about playing in a faster-paced offense that requires quicker passes and more movement. But suddenly, Cousins isn’t the only entertaining 7-footer in town.
Cauley-Stein, 21, who teases his mother about the quality of their dueling tattoos – Marlene’s right arm is a colorful display from wrist to elbow, while his lanky frame is covered with assorted body art – said he felt a great “vibe” during his workout with the Kings and is thrilled to have a place to call home.
“And,” he added with a grin, “I look good in purple.”
Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, email@example.com, @ailene_voisin