Willie Cauley-Stein fears only this: becoming the forgotten man. In what he terms an extremely “frustrating” season, with his playing time diminishing by the week, the second-year center wants to be recognized as one of the young Sacramento Kings with a dynamic personality and on-court potential to match.
Remember? Like last season?
The breakout dunks off baseball passes from Rajon Rondo. The acrobatic stickbacks off a teammate’s missed shot. The occasional midrange jumper. The constant willingness to move the ball, accept the leftovers and clean up the offensive garbage.
“I feel I was showing stuff at the end of last season that would make people say, ‘Oh, damn, they got a steal in the draft,’” Cauley-Stein said. “Now it’s like I took 25 steps forward and 30 steps back. It’s like my whole rookie season didn’t matter and I’m back at square one. Nothing I did last year is having an effect on my career. It’s been very frustrating.”
The sixth overall pick in 2015 is confronting several disadvantages. Forget for the moment he performed poorly during the Las Vegas summer league while auditioning for incoming coach Dave Joerger. The University of Kentucky product is third on the depth chart behind veteran All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and the productive Kosta Koufos, which means he mostly shares the bench with rookie big men George Papagiannis and Skal Labissiere.
With majority owner Vivek Ranadive’s directive to assemble a roster that could compete for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference in Year One at Golden 1 Center, the kids essentially have been instructed to practice hard, keep their mouths shut and sit and watch their elders. The offseason additions of Garrett Temple, Anthony Tolliver, Matt Barnes, Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson virtually ensured that any potential youth movement was a thing of the past or the future, not the present.
As long as the Kings linger near the crowded eighth spot in the West, competing for the final conference playoff berth with Portland, Denver, New Orleans, Minnesota, Dallas, the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix, Joerger appears intent on tinkering with his rotations but sticking with his more experienced and proven players.
Cauley-Stein’s situation is further complicated by the logjam in the middle. Koufos fully expected to be the odd man out, traded after General Manager Vlade Divac’s draft-day maneuverings for the 7-foot-1 Papagiannis and 6-11 Labissiere. Instead, he starts alongside Cousins or comes off the bench as the backup center, providing rim protection, interior defense, rebounding and ball movement.
“He (Cauley-Stein) has to beat Kosta out,” Joerger explained when asked about his second-year player’s limited minutes. “When you have to put somebody else in, you have to take someone else out and say, ‘This guy is better than you.’ So when he passes Kosta up … it just takes time. His career path is a 10-year deal. He is still a young player, still working hard, still doing a good job on his off-day routines.”
Cauley-Stein, 23, looks the part of the youngster. To counter his frustration, he expresses himself with colorful, funky wardrobes and frequently changing hairstyles. These days the Afro is out, the tight braids are back. He also is wearing braces on his teeth again; something about neglecting to use his retainers when they were previously removed.
But Cauley-Stein is acutely aware that players can’t build their brands until they become established within the league, and his sample size this season is too limited to reach any conclusions. A year ago, after improving his conditioning and benefiting from an assortment of lobs and setups on the fast break from Rondo, the wiry, athletic 7-footer averaged 7.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game. He also often covered for Cousins defensively with a springy, active presence around the basket.
He was named to the All-Rookie second team. Thus encouraged, he discussed a desire throughout the offseason to expand his role. While Divac and members of the previous coaching staff encouraged him to play to his strengths — develop a reputation as a consistent rim runner, ball mover and interior defender while increasing his rebounding numbers — Cauley-Stein envisioned himself showing off his midrange jumper and variety of post moves.
“I think I started that (talk) myself,” he admitted. “I don’t want to just be a defensive guy. I think I have way too much to give to settle for that. So I’m putting it on myself. I work on guard skills all the time. You don’t see guys my size doing guard stuff. And someday, somebody is gonna take it and run with it, and that’s when I’m gonna be special.”
That hasn’t happened yet, though, and on rare occasions when he has been on the court this season (11.0 minutes per game), Cauley-Stein has struggled to finish at the rim and been underwhelming on the boards. Again, he cites the lack of opportunities and the Kings’ tempo as major culprits, and both are valid points. In the past five games, Cauley-Stein has made only two appearances, playing one minute against Cleveland and five minutes against Oklahoma City. Statistically, the Kings rank 23rd in pace, and after averaging a mere 5.7 fast-break points over the past three games, they have dropped to 19th in that category.
“You can’t do stuff in three minutes or 10 minutes or 48 seconds,” Cauley-Stein said. “All that stuff has to happen in the course of a game. Our slow style is another thing. When you’re in position to score, it’s usually in a bad position, and usually the clock is running down. You have five seconds to make a decision on how to score, and that’s hard. I just have to keep grinding and hope things change.”
That could occur sooner rather than later. Koufos still anticipates being traded by the Feb. 23 deadline, and if the Kings falter badly during their upcoming eight-game trip, effectively dropping out of the race for the eighth playoff spot, dramatic changes would be in order. The kids might even take a few baby steps onto the court.
“I am going to just keep working hard,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m developing a lot during practice. People are going to be surprised. I have all the skills you need. It’s just locked up. When it gets unlocked, I’m going to be special.”