As Willie Cauley-Stein succinctly summed up his leadership role, it’s gone from “zero to one hundred.”
Just a year ago, the former University of Kentucky star was the lone rookie on the Kings’ roster with veterans in his ear to help him improve as the season came to a close.
While Cauley-Stein spent much of this season as one of the young guys trying to earn the trust of a new coaching staff, he has taken on more responsibility in the Kings’ post-DeMarcus Cousins era.
The second-year center has embraced the challenge, becoming a mentor to rookie and fellow former Wildcat Skal Labissiere in what could be the center-power forward tandem the Kings rely on for years to come.
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“I think one of my good assets to my character is to be able to take dudes under my wing, grind with them and kind of pave the way to help them out as I would want help,” Cauley-Stein said. “I think it’s my duty to do that, to make sure the young dude is always working and doing what he’s supposed to do. I put that on myself as a leader to do that. That’s something that I’ve got to do.”
The pairing in some ways is natural. Both played at UK and were first-round draft selections.
The sixth overall pick in 2015, Cauley-Stein was seen a versatile piece who might become an elite defender. Labissiere was drafted 28th in 2016, quite the drop for a player who was believed to be vying with Ben Simmons for the top pick at the start of their freshman season.
As the Kings play out their schedule, they want to see how the two young bigs mesh on the floor, and the early results have been positive.
Labissiere likes that he and Cauley-Stein can be interchangeable on defense in certain switches and believes their talents on offense are starting to jell.
“I think we have a really bright future playing with each other,” Labissiere said.
Cauley-Stein’s personality blends with Labissiere’s, too. The rookie seems to be perpetually upbeat, and Cauley-Stein isn’t one to browbeat a teammate.
Cauley-Stein’s role on offense continues to expand. He’s showing he can facilitate and when he rolls hard to the basket, Labissiere is showing he can make jump shots when given the space.
Both can also show a mean streak on the court that belies their easy-going off-court personalities.
“I like playing with him,” Cauley-Stein said. “He makes good plays. He’s young so he’s going to learn not to make the bonehead plays. We all go through it. Once he gets that under his belt, he’s going to be a heck of a player in this league, and I’m glad I get to mentor him through it.”
Cauley-Stein’s workload predictably increased after Cousins was traded to New Orleans at the All-Star break. How Labissiere would fit was more of an unknown.
Labissiere is averaging 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds since Cousins was traded while making 60.5 percent of his shots in 16.9 minutes. Cauley-Stein is averaging 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds since the deal.
The Kings’ biggest concern with Labissiere was his slight frame along with the fact he hadn’t played much at Kentucky or during his last season in high school.
But as his playing time has increased, Labissiere has shown he can score (a career-high 32 points Wednesday at Phoenix) and that he can rebound and defend.
“We both get to learn at the same time, together,” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s cool because I’m kind of the older dude from school. I can tell he looks up to me, and on off-days he’s always in my ear. It’s cool; he’s like a little brother.”
The little brother has been impressed with big brother’s play, and it has him excited for what might the future might hold.
“Two young guys, learning and growing together,” Labissiere said. “Working every single day. Willie’s been working really hard, putting in work. I’m not surprised by his success at all.”