Who knew, but Willie Cauley-Stein felt trapped in the starting lineup.
Not that the third-year big man out of the University of Kentucky was against starting, but starting at center left him feeling boxed in.
After a season-high 22 points and 10 rebounds helped the Sacramento Kings to an 86-82 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night at Golden 1 Center, Cauley-Stein was feeling free in his new role as a reserve.
The Kings had lost three in a row, including a 46-point drubbing at Atlanta on Wednesday. That was the sub-par showing that led to Coach Dave Joerger to shuffle his starting lineup.
Cauley-Stein had started every game this season. He came off the bench Friday, playing power forward, and felt “free.”
“I feel like coming off the bench and playing the four, I think, is good for me,” Cauley-Stein said. “Just playing in space and not being so claustrophobic in the lane all the time. I’m starting to unlock something in the game that I’ve been working on for a long time.”
Cauley-Stein has said since the Kings drafted him sixth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft that he’s more than the defensive player he was touted as coming out of UK. He’d tell you he has offensive skills, that he’s more than a player who should settle for running the floor and scoring off offensive rebounds.
When Cauley-Stein came off the bench Friday, Kosta Koufos would come off the bench, too, and play center.
That’s the freedom Cauley-Stein craves. When starting next to Zach Randolph, it’s hard to run plays for both, and that usually means giving the ball to Randolph in the post.
Randolph stayed in the starting lineup at center against Portland. Skal Labissiere started in Cauley-Stein’s power forward spot.
When paired with Koufos, Cauley-Stein is the offensive option between the two.
“(Cauley-Stein) can now almost be a half-perimeter guy, he’s got some skills,” Joerger said. “He made some very aggressive moves tonight that didn’t always go in but they were aggressive. And I’m totally fine with that.”
Joerger said it’s easier to call plays for Cauley-Stein when he’s at power forward than at center. Defensively, Joerger also liked how Koufos and Cauley-Stein worked together.
Koufos and Cauley-Stein are the longest-tenured Kings with three seasons together, so their familiarity with each other is a plus.
Cauley-Stein said he’d looked forward to playing more with Koufos all season.
“For us, it’s just communication,” Koufos said. “That’s the biggest thing, it’s the simple things.”
Lineups for the Kings are fluid, and Cauley-Stein could find himself back in the starting lineup at some point. What needs to remain is the mindset that allowed him to play as he did Friday.
“I feel free, period, both offensively and defensively, quarterbacking on defense and making plays on offense,” Cauley-Stein said. “I just felt liberated, I felt like it’s something unlocking … It can really only go up from here.”
The Kings (4-11) hoped they couldn’t sink any lower than Wednesday’s 46-point defeat at Atlanta, in which they gave up a season-high 126 points and allowed the Hawks to shoot 63.3 percent.
Sacramento looked like a different team on defense against Portland (8-7), allowing a season-low in points and just 37 percent shooting by Portland.
Damian Lillard scored 29 points, but shot nine of 25 from the field.
The Kings were feisty defensively, a trait that’s been missing too often this season.
“If we can defend like that, we’re going to be hell to play against because we’re so young and active,” Cauley-Stein said. “If we can keep going, keep talking to each other and build this kind of bond between everybody like we’re doing, play with that heart, we’re going to be in games.”
Cauley-Stein said the Kings have to be “pesky” on defense.
“The games that we play like that, we look really well,” Cauley-Stein said. “The games that we just kind let teams do what they want, we get beat by 40.”