NBA rookies usually arrive at training camp uncertain about their role and curious how their skill set translates at the next level. Not Willie Cauley-Stein. The former Kentucky big man already has a clear sense of who he is, and who he isn’t, and what he can do, and what he can’t.
Someday, he wants to be a primary scoring threat similar to All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. But today, the Kings’ first-round draft choice describes himself as a basketball minimalist. His self-portrait – a sketch of a long-limbed athlete running, rebounding, contesting and blocking shots – is surprising in its clarity and maturity.
“My role is pretty clear,” Cauley-Stein said before the Kings’ 107-100 preseason win over the Lakers on Tuesday night in Las Vegas. “It’s a cookie-cutter role. Clean the basket area. Get lots of rebounds. Try to block a lot of shots. Hopefully in three, four years I’ll be in the same position as Boogie – be able to dribble the ball up the floor, make plays. But until then I take what I get. You need a junk man on your team to win.”
This from a rookie? Those are the words of a seasoned veteran, not a highly paid product from one of the most celebrated college programs in the country. Yet barely three weeks into preseason, the No. 6 overall draft choice is quietly impressing, and even exceeding the coaching staff’s expectations. He is both fast and a quick study. The same player whose subpar conditioning concerned team executives during the Las Vegas Summer League has accelerated his development and, at least partly as a result, thrust himself into the starting lineup.
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At 7 feet and 240 pounds, with a rangy frame and impossibly long arms, Cauley-Stein runs the floor in exuberant bursts, sprinting past opponents with lively, athletic strides. Around the basket, he anticipates from the weak side and hurriedly slides over to contest layups and short jumpers. His grasp of the rule of verticality – the tenet that defenders are entitled to the airspace when their arms are extended straight upward – seems to have surprised the referees; on at least two occasions during the preseason games, he was assessed a foul that was undeserved.
“Surprisingly, I think our defense has been above average, maybe good,” coach George Karl said, adding that Cauley-Stein’s athleticism and length fit well with Cousins. “Statistically, it’s probably as good as you could expect. I think we’ve got to trust that they’ll be there for us and continue to try and make the concepts and aggressiveness into our pressure.”
In preseason games against San Antonio and Portland, in particular, the Kings frontcourt combinations at times resisted with the force of a brick wall, preventing layups, penetration and easy opportunities. The fact that neither Cauley-Stein nor Kosta Koufos need the ball to be effective is another bonus for a team that for the past several seasons was overrun by players who hunt shots and overdribble.
Since this is preseason, of course, all assessments are accompanied by a cautionary caveat: This is preseason. The question with Cauley-Stein, the issue that will largely determine the arc of his career, is whether he can rebound consistently.
“I’m just starting to figure out the pace of the NBA,” he said, nodding, acknowledging the perception. “It’s not fast, it’s just quick. When you have a little lapse, that one time, that’s when the ball goes up. Read and react. Seal your man. I just try to go after every board, try to be over there on the weak side. Those are the things that will make me a solid player.”
The thoughtful and engaging Cauley-Stein, who at 22 is older than most rookies of his era, said he consults Cousins, Koufos and his other Kings teammates, though interestingly, he credits point guard Rajon Rondo with providing the most valuable tip thus far.
“Telling me to contest (shots) with my left hand because most shooters are right-handed,” said Cauley-Stein, citing the more advantageous angle. “I worked on that a lot at Kentucky. It’s always going to be right there in front of you in the shooting space. It’s about going after every board, going after every shot, doing it every time.”
Sure, he would love to be an integral part of the offense. Sure, he would love to become a dominant scorer. Sure, he admires Cousins’ many gifts. But he said it first, and said it best: “You have to start somewhere,” Cauley-Stein added, with a grin. “You start at the bottom.”