Early on, Willie Cauley-Stein looked a bit skittish. He opened his third NBA season with an airball.
“Like my first shot was a preseason one,” Cauley-Stein said. “I was trying to rush that (shot) when I could have just held (the ball) and yeah, I’ve got it. After that I kind of got into a little rhythm, slowing down and playing under control, that’s everything.”
The Sacramento Kings don’t need a frenetic Cauley-Stein on the court this season.
They need the calm, in-control version of their center who finished with a team-high 21 points to go with 10 rebounds and three blocks in Sacramento’s 105-100 season-opening loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center.
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Cauley-Stein is certainly a free spirit away from the court. It’s hard to imagine any other King wearing the purple — or something close to purple — shirt that appeared to be velvet. He bought it at a thrift store in China, where one might assume it was tailored for the late musical legend Prince, if he were 7 feet tall and 240 pounds.
It takes a certain level of confidence and individuality to pull off that fashion statement, or as Cauley-Stein called it, “groovy (stuff).”
When Cauley-Stein plays the way he did Wednesday, his confidence is infectious. If the Kings get that from him consistently, they will have a fighting chance most nights. That spark will help them when they’re struggling.
“Willie being Willie,” Kings guard George Hill said. “He’s been that type of player his whole career, so we expect him to play with that high intensity and that motor. And when he plays that way, he’s at his best.”
Kings Coach Dave Joerger described Cauley-Stein’s start to the game as “tough” but was impressed that he didn’t put his head down because he’d shot an airball.
Instead Cauley-Stein got back to being the player the Kings want and need — someone who brings energy, makes the simple play and is opportunistic.
He made 10 of 15 shots, turned it over once and had four offensive rebounds. Joerger said his putbacks are key.
“Those are effort and energy plays, and I think your teammates embrace (it) when you see a guy picking up a guy fullcourt, or a guy crashing the boards, getting rebounds in traffic,” Joerger said. “And those kinds of things that inspire you as a teammate, so guys have confidence in him and I thought he had a good game.”
It was encouraging to see Cauley-Stein exploit smaller defenders in the lane, or confidently take an open jump shot.
He’ll have his critics throughout the season. His laid-back demeanor can easily be mistaken for indifference by a casual observer. But anyone with the confidence to pull off wearing that “groovy” shirt clearly is not bothered by outside opinions.
“You know what you work on, you know what shot you can make, you know what plays you can make so you just go out there like you’ve been working on it,” Cauley-Stein said. “And when it’s presentable, you take it and just being overly aggressive is everything.”
And just don’t let that first airball get you down.