January 27, 2018, 5:26 pm
After playing three seasons at Kentucky, Willie Cauley-Stein was thought to be one of the more NBA-ready prospects in the 2015 draft. His ability to defend was expected to translate early on, and he was never expected to develop an offensive game beyond easy baskets in transition and the occasional alley-oop.
Despite that, he seemed to enter his third season in the league with more questions than answers: he hadn’t had the impact that many expected on defense, but he had begun to show some potential as both a scorer and passer.
Cauley-Stein’s development continued this season, with him eventually becoming one of the team’s primary options offensively. He was showing court vision that very few had expected him to develop, and he had also started to use his athleticism to his advantage on offense. Sacramento struggled tremendously in January and December, but Cauley-Stein had been one of the few bright spots over that stretch.
His growth on offense allowed the Kings to remain competitive on his best nights, but the team still struggled to remain competitive because of their inability to stop their opponents. Cauley-Stein couldn’t shoulder the blame for that, but it was fair to wonder if a better performance from him on that end would have contributed to a few more wins for a team stuck at the bottom of the Western Conference.
Sacramento has been able to turn things around a bit in recent games – strong defense on the road against Orlando and Miami led to two-straight wins after more than a month full of tough losses, and flashes of strong play on the defensive end of the floor had shown up in a few of the games before that. A renewed commitment on defense could be seen in plenty of players on the roster, but no player contributed more to the team’s defensive improvement in recent games than Cauley-Stein.
In the team’s last two games, the Kings have had a defensive rating of 83.2 with Cauley-Stein on the floor – that number shoots up to 116.4 with him on the bench. The sample size is small, but with three steals and seven blocks combined against the Magic and the Heat, it’s not hard to see how that impact was made.
Cauley-Stein had shown the tools to be a great defender in the past. According to NBA.com, Cauley-Stein ranked in the 99.5-percentile as an isolation defender, allowing just .32 points per possession. His ranked dipped a bit this season, but he still only gives up .75 points per possession in those situations.
The difference over the last couple of weeks has been his ability to contribute as a help defender. In the video below, you can see Cauley-Stein focus on stopping James Johnson in transition before blocking a dunk attempt from Josh Richardson:
Cauley-Stein made an even bigger impact against Orlando, a team that gave him plenty of opportunities to show what he could do as a rim protector:
In the past Cauley-Stein was just a bit too hesitant on defense, and that stopped him from making the quick decisions needed to be a high-level rebounder and shot blocker. Now that he has more confidence and experience he’s starting to make a real difference on that end of the floor.
A shift in recent years has made wing players more valuable than ever, and while many feel that the center position has been devalued pick-and-roll defense and rim protection are more important than ever. Few seven-footers have both the size and athleticism to excel in both areas, but players like Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert show just how valuable that can be for a team. Cauley-Stein might not reach their level as a shot blocker, but his versatility as a defender could make him just as impactful.
It’s tough to know exactly what his ceiling is on offense, but he still has the potential to be one of the top defenders in the league with his unique combination of size, length and athleticism. Cauley-Stein’s development on offense has been exciting, but his development as a two-way player is what could make him truly special.