Three years into his NBA career, Willie Cauley-Stein is making good on his promise. No, on his many promises. The Kings’ 7-foot flower child — he of the colorful wardrobe, quirky personality and expansive vocabulary — is blossoming into a force at center and power forward, and a stable, engaging presence inside Golden 1 Center.
He can play. He can really play.
Within the past several weeks and particularly the last five games, the former University of Kentucky standout has been a master of consistency, no longer inclined to follow solid performances with uneven clunkers or invisible-man acts. In 30.6 minutes per game during that stretch, he averaged 15.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists, while shooting 55.7 percent from the field.
In Wednesday’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was most impressive, curling into the lane for quick jumpers, dunks and floaters, scoring in transition, finding teammates with crisp passes, protecting the basket.
“These last games, I’m seeing what I was hoping for when I drafted Willie,” Kings General Manager Vlade Divac said. “He runs, he scores, he blocks shots, he scores in the post. He does everything. And we noticed last summer how much harder he was working. There were questions, but I don’t think so anymore. If he keeps developing like this, he will be an elite center in this league.”
There. Divac said it, put the in-house whisper to words. An elite center. The Kings have been waiting on Willie — on the full Willie — to make that all-important next step, the one where he commits wholeheartedly and establishes himself as a consistent, significant contributor while still enjoying his artwork, his flights of fancy, his varied interest.
So why now? Other than the fact NBA big men historically are slow developers?
Cauley-Stein, 24, has his own theories. He cites his intense and religious offseason workout routine, his physical maturation and increased strength, his desire to be great, a coach who allows him to play through mistakes, teammates who appreciate him for who he is.
“It’s fun to be engaged like this,” he said the other night. “If you’re a willing passer and you want to make plays for other people, you can do it, and they are good with that. I’m pretty zoned in right now. I feel like I’m starting to figure things out about myself, that the world is starting to figure out that I am capable of a lot more than I have shown in the past.”
During his first two seasons, Cauley-Stein — who was described by Kentucky Coach John Calipari as somewhat of an undeveloped, offensive innocent when he was drafted sixth overall in 2015 — would sit back and admire DeMarcus Cousins’ ability to shoot threes, bring the ball upcourt, score through contact, thread passes to open teammates, snatch rebounds, dominate games in the closing minutes.
Willie would watch all this, including the distracting and unnecessary nightly drama, and in bold, blunt terms, tell reporters that someday that would be him, that he would become the Kings’ next great big man, alas, without the attitude.
Cauley-Stein, in fact, is benefiting enormously from a roster makeover and a tight-knit locker room that features a mix of veterans and younger players, but is refreshingly devoid of discord or individual agendas; these Kings not only enjoy each other’s company, they are quick with the assist.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, who at 25 is a rookie in name only, has forged a particularly strong bond with his center. Though listed as a shooting guard, Bogi is the most adept entry passer on the roster, perhaps the best passer on the team, period, and he routinely finds Cauley-Stein with timely passes in the lane, on the break, on the elbows.
“Willie, we talk a lot,” Bogdanovic said. “Everyone here says, ‘be aggressive,’ but I think they use the word in the wrong way. They think it means, ‘I have the ball and it’s my time.’ No. You have to recognize the game. Willie just needed someone like me to help him a little bit because I had the same problem when I first played in Europe. I try to tell him, ‘You are a big guy and a crazy athlete. Keep the game simple. Just read the game. If you have a mismatch in the lane, yell at me quickly to find you. You don’t need to do crazy moves, maybe only at the end of shot clock or game clock. Be patient.’ That will be more effective. And from what I see, he has only shown 10-20 percent of his potential.”
Kings Coach Dave Joerger, who continues experimenting with lineups and frontcourt combinations, is especially pleased with Cauley-Stein’s improving floor game. “He’s learning when to come out and set the pick and roll, when to slip out, when to get a really hard roll,” Joerger said. “All those things come with experience.”
But no conversation with Willie is complete without the big man peering into the future, offering predictions, making promises. He looks ahead and envisions a 7-foot nightmare for the rest of the league.
“This is Year 3, and it’s scary what the offseason can bring,” he said, with his familiar flash of bravado. “Like, by next year I should be able to put the ball on the floor and bring it up in transition, and make plays. And play through contact. I want to finish, and one (free throw). I want to be great, right? That’s why you play.”