Midway through the third quarter in Monday night’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Kings point guard Darren Collison, sprinting up the court in transition, threw a lob pass for center Willie Cauley-Stein, who jumped, caught it near his back shoulder and finished the play with a dunk in the same motion.
Two minutes later, the duo connected again. This time, Cauley-Stein set a screen for Collison near the three-point line, slipped behind his defender and caught Collison’s lob near the rim, flushing it through with both hands.
“I’m trying to get him to throw it more,” the former University of Kentucky star said of the lob pass. “I think it’s there more. And I think he’s starting to realize that.
“He’s really got that option whenever he wants to throw it. Cause there’s nobody that’s going to jump with me. And there’s nobody that can stop me from grabbing that ball.”
While Sacramento isn’t quite “Lob City,” the alley-oop play has become more common for the Kings with Cauley-Stein, the athletic 7-footer, on the floor.
Cauley-Stein has finished 21 alley-oops this season, according to shot tracking data from nbasavant.com, which is the most on the Kings and 20th in the league.
That pales in comparison to league-leaders DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers (87) and Clint Capela of Houston (85). But both those players get roughly 20 percent of their total shot attempts from alley-oops, compared to Cauley-Stein’s rate of 6.3 percent.
Cauley-Stein was also a reserve player for much of this season, playing limited minutes. More than half of his alley-oop attempts have come since last month.
Probably his most-viewed play came Feb. 8, late in a win over the Boston Celtics. Standing at the free-throw line when Collison threw up a lob, Cauley-Stein caught it about halfway to the rim by reaching back with his right hand and threw the ball down with force, bringing the Kings’ bench and the Golden 1 Center crowd to its feet.
“He’s a freak, a freak of nature,” Collison said. “There’s only like a few bigs in this league that have that size and athleticism and can do what he does.”
Collison and Cauley-Stein have been on the court together more since the latter cracked the starting lineup in February. And that’s given them more experience running the type of two-man game that resulted in the second alley-oop Monday night against Memphis.
Cauley-Stein sets a screen on Collison’s defender on the perimeter, then rolls toward the basket. Collison threads a pass or lob to Cauley-Stein. Or he can drive to try to create his own shot or find another open teammate, in which case Cauley-Stein is there for a potential offensive rebound.
“You gotta read the defense first,” Collison said. “If the (lob) opportunity presents itself, you just throw it up.”
And when Cauley-Stein sees the lob go up?
“I’m like, ‘Oh yeah. Finally,’” he said, grinning.
Before becoming a starter, Cauley-Stein caught most of his lobs from backup point guard Ty Lawson, who said he’s encouraging the big man to look for more of those chances.
“He’s got good hands,” Lawson said. “I think he gets up high enough that he can catch the ball even if it’s not a good pass and still be able to finish it. So I’ve been working with him, just watching tape with him, telling him like, ‘If you see this, just go straight to the basket.’
“We’ve been working on it because I feel like he can be a DeAndre Jordan type player. Even better, because I feel like he has more of an offensive package. He can get on the block and actually shoot, and finish like that.”
Cauley-Stein’s overall shooting percentage this season of 53.6 — which ranks 17th among players with at least his number of attempts — improves to 66.9 percent when he’s within 5 feet of the basket, according to nba.com.
He is shooting just 33.1 percent outside of 5 feet, though the fact that more than a third of his attempts fall under that category indicates he is willing to stretch the floor.
Jordan and the Clippers, for whom the term “Lob City” was coined, remain the standard when it comes to alley-oops. But the Kings’ faith in Cauley-Stein is growing, evidenced near the end of Monday’s game against Memphis.
With 32 seconds left and the Kings trailing by one, guard Garrett Temple tried to throw a lob for Cauley-Stein – on an inbounds pass. The play resulted in a turnover, but the Kings still came away with a 91-90 win.
“It’s just that trust,” Cauley-Stein said afterward. “If he trusts me that I’m going to get it, he’s going to throw it.”