Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings’ Willie Cauley-Stein’s athleticism electrifies in first start

Willie Cauley-Stein made his NBA debut Wednesday against the Clippers, but he unofficially introduced himself to Kings fans two nights later with a bang-bang sequence against the Lakers, against the old bad guys.

And poor Lou Williams. He never saw superman coming. The lanky 7-foot-1 Kings rookie, in tights and a light blue retro jersey, flying right at him. The right arm extended toward the sky. The wrist and the elbow and the hand in his face, obstructing his view. Which body part actually blocked the shot? Was it perhaps all of the above?

No matter. Cauley-Stein swatted Williams’ floater away with such force, such terrific aim at the left baseline, that while Kings fans went breathless, Darren Collison grabbed the ball and sprinted downcourt.

“I think Villie blocked it with his elbow,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac offered later, grinning. “Pretty nice, huh? He’s going to help us a lot.”

The getting-to-know-Willie phase is in its infancy. For the Kings, for the league, for the coaches, even for the front office. Divac, whose Serbian accent is most pronounced when he becomes excited, meant Willie when he was talking about Villie. (I caught his drift.)

But there was no misinterpreting what the rookie did to Williams, what he accomplished against the Lakers in general, or what his interior presence potentially means to a team that historically invites opponents into the arena for uncontested layup drills.

These Kings are different. The locker room even feels different. They might not reach the playoffs or satisfy coach George Karl’s quiet belief that his Kings will be the sleepers in the Western Conference. Franchises tend to improve incrementally rather than dramatically. But four days into a season, the coach and the GM might be onto something.

Marco Belinelli is making plays and converting timely jumpers. Collison is healthy and ideally suited to a free-flowing style. Rajon Rondo is displaying glimpses of the cerebral pre-injury point guard who harasses ballhandlers and directs an offense like a conductor, or as Karl suggests with his hands moving over an imaginary instrument, like someone who “plays the piano.”

The addition of 7-foot Kosta Koufos and Cauley-Stein oozes depth and potential and already is altering the product. Koufos, who is back with the second unit, is crafty, obliging, unconventional. His post defense is physical and instinctive. Although Koufos’ offense is mostly limited to stickbacks, funky floaters and half-hooks, he is an excellent interior passer who embraces his less romantic role as a rebounder and sort of DeMarcus Cousins’ bodyguard.

As for Cauley-Stein? Weeks before he collected those nine rebounds, surprised the Lakers with 17 points, blocked three shots and contested several others in his first career start alongside Cousins, a fellow former Wildcat, this is what a prescient Kentucky coach John Calipari predicted:

“I think Willie can play behind the basket and give DeMarcus room in and out,” he said of his two ex-players. “He is a great slasher when playing outside, and DC inside. Both can pass. Should have plenty of lobs. How about going small ball with skilled length? One big can cover outside (Cauley-Stein) and the other in. I like long at all positions. Drivers, shooters with a bully.”

Cousins is the bully, of course, and Cauley-Stein is proving to be a very engaged student. Before the Lakers game, he watched film with Rondo for 15 minutes, asking questions and inhaling information.

“The thing I really like about him is that he listens,” Rondo said. “A lot of the young guys don’t want to listen.”

Rondo, who won a championship with the Boston Celtics, suggests a few similarities between Cauley-Stein and his former teammate Kevin Garnett. Along with exceptional length and athleticism, Rondo senses a grasp of defensive nuances and a desire to protect the guards when they pressure the ball and get beaten.

“I didn’t get KG in his prime,” noted Rondo, “but he was still pretty agile. That’s why I encourage Willie to pick up (pressure defensively). That’s the same thing KG did. He was always talking back-line defense. I’m trying to get that feeling back with a big, and Willie has the talent to do that.”

The NBA is an immersion course for rookies, not an online, at-your-leisure hoops class. The lessons continue at a brisk, nightly clip. Cauley-Stein had his rematch with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on Saturday night. The upcoming week alone features his first formal meeting against Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies; Tyson Chandler and the Phoenix Suns; Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets; and, on Saturday evening, the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

Though his head is spinning, Cauley-Stein is enjoying the moment. As he sat at his locker after his first start, his energy was still flowing. His legs bounced up and down. He smiled repeatedly. He glanced at his cellphone, laughed and said there were several calls from his mother.

“I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “It’s pretty cut and dried what I have to do, so it’s not like I have to go get 30 (points) every night. I scored 15 (actually 17), and everybody was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy is cool!’ But that’s not going to happen every night. It was just one of those nights when the shots were falling and I was in the right spot at the right time.”

To be fair, the rookie was being too modest. His 17 points included dunks in transitions, dunks on lobs, a couple of layups, and a late-game flurry where he crossed over and curled into the lane for running one-handers. But that blocked shot? The one that had the building buzzing? “A lot of it’s just reaction,” he said, “just protecting the paint.”

For the Kings, that’s a good place to start.

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