Willie Cauley-Stein still must prove himself.
That has been the case since the former University of Kentucky star was a rookie last season. His playing time has decreased, and he occasionally appears to be trying to find his way.
“I’ve just got to remember this is my second year and new coaches, so it’s like being in a rookie year all over again,” Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein is slowly earning the trust of Coach Dave Joerger and his staff by being a versatile defender and playing energetically, qualities that made him the sixth overall draft pick in 2015.
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So much for that offseason chatter about Cauley-Stein expanding his role on offense. He’s looked uncomfortable at times and his performance has suffered. He’s also the No. 3 center in a league where most teams go only two deep at any position, meaning little or no playing time some nights.
Still, Cauley-Stein said he feels good, even if he doesn’t get on the court.
“I just took the pressure off myself,” he said. “In the beginning, I was wondering why I wasn’t playing and that was affecting the way I was playing when I did get a chance to play, because I was constantly worrying about if I was going to get taken out. Now I’ve accepted that I might not play or I might play, so it’s about staying ready, staying in the gym and keeping my spirits high and not going into a depression or anything like that. Just keep sticking to the process and it’s gonna happen. Just got to stay on top of it.”
In Sunday’s loss to the New York Knicks, Cauley-Stein played 23 minutes, his second most this season. He played 25 minutes Nov. 3 against the Orlando Magic.
In the 13 games in between, Cauley-Stein played more than 10 minutes just six times and didn’t play three times. So what was different in New York?
“I think his versatility and length to be able to step out and play Carmelo (Anthony) or step out and play (Kristaps) Porzingis and maybe that’s not Kosta’s strength as much,” Joerger said of Koufos, the Kings’ No. 2 center.
Cauley-Stein is fine with that role.
“That’s what I like to do,” he said. “I like to play guys like that anyways. That kind of goes into my strengths instead of trying to play a five man (center) who outweighs me by 40 pounds trying to bang with him.”
Cauley-Stein is averaging 5.1 points but just 1.9 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game. He said working with teammates including Ben McLemore, Anthony Tolliver and Koufos has helped keep him upbeat even when he’s not playing.
Cauley-Stein said it’s all part of “sticking to the process.”
“Just staying in a routine, getting my jumpers up, continue to work on my ballhandling,” he said. “But the biggest thing is getting in spots I know I can score or putting myself in positions where I can score and rebound. I’ve really been focusing on being in position to get the rebound instead of just boxing the guy out, then somebody else gets the rebound. Just me going to get it. It looks better on me.”