We sat there for more than 15 minutes that night in New Orleans, long after the other players left the visitor’s locker room to board the buses waiting outside the arena.
Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein adjusted the ice wraps on his legs, eased back in his seat and spoke openly about the uncertainty he would likely face this summer in free agency. He talked about who he is, who he wants to be, his belief that he has been underutilized in Sacramento, the possibility of leaving and his desire to stay.
“I just want to hoop freely,” the former University of Kentucky star said. “That’s kind of the biggest thing for me, just going somewhere, whether it’s here or anywhere else, just taking that next evolution to the game where you’re not just a rim runner. You’re a pick-and-pop guy sometimes. You can get rolling with what the defense gives you. I wanna be that dude.”
Is that a dude who can help the Kings end the NBA’s longest postseason drought after 13 consecutive losing seasons? Can Cauley-Stein be retained at a sensible price in the range of $10 million per year and transitioned into a backup role if the Kings acquire a better player? Should Sacramento think bigger, given the injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson of the Warriors and the trade that sent Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers in a stunning series of events that shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference?
Kings GM Vlade Divac will contemplate these questions in the days ahead as he reaches an important decision regarding Cauley-Stein, the first player he drafted after joining the front office in 2015. What the Kings do with Cauley-Stein will shape their future more than anything they do with three second-round picks in Thursday’s NBA Draft, unless a major trade materializes.
The Kings have until June 30 to extend a qualifying offer that would make Cauley-Stein, 25, a restricted free agent, giving them the right to match any offer he receives from another team. Or, they could simply let him walk away.
“It’s a tough question,” Divac recently told The Sacramento Bee. “We would like to keep Willie in terms of his talent potential, but he still needs to show us the consistency that we are looking for. We are talking.”
We’ve been talking about this stuff for years. When training camp began last year, Cauley-Stein told us his “chakras” were aligned and his mind, body and spirit were sound. He said he was ready to be consistent and “ready to get paid” after Divac set expectations in a private meeting, essentially giving him a map to the gold.
Cauley-Stein averaged 11.9 points, a career-high 8.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals in 81 games as a starter this season. He ranked 29th among centers in scoring, 24th in rebounding and 55th in blocked shots.
Cauley-Stein’s numbers are even more damning when adjusted for minutes with per-36 averages that ranked 50th in scoring, 47th in rebounding and 78th in blocked shots.
“You see what other centers in the league are doing, and I used to try to compare myself to them,” Cauley-Stein said. “As soon as I stopped comparing myself to them, my game kind of freed up. I don’t have to be the same as them. I don’t have to be the same as Steven Adams. I don’t have to be the same as DeAndre Jordan. I’m Willie Cauley-Stein. I’m going to do what I crafted my game to do just like they crafted theirs. I don’t want to be like nobody else. I want to just be me.”
Cauley-Stein has been the subject of fan frustration because he’s tantalizingly close to being the perfect player for the run-and-gun game the Kings unleashed on the NBA this season. He’s a long, agile 7-footer who goes end to end faster than any center in the league, excels as a lob threat and provides the ability to switch defensively, but inconsistency and a couple of critical deficiencies have been unmistakable weaknesses in his game.
What the Kings need is a center who runs the floor, protects the rim and rebounds voraciously, preferably with a decent outside shot, not a dude who’s trying to establish a 15-foot jumper.
Unfortunately, there are few men in the world who possess all of those traits. Nikola Vucevic, Brook Lopez, Jordan and Dewayne Dedmon are conceivable fits for the Kings. Earlier reports suggested Sacramento would use $37 million in projected salary-cap space to offer Vucevic, 28, a max contract, but a league source has now told NBC Sports California the Kings are unlikely to pursue Vucevic.
Dedmon, 29, is a rim runner who rebounds, protects the paint and shot 38.2 percent from three-point range this season with the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks are reportedly interested in keeping Dedmon on a short-term deal similar to his previous two-year, $14 million contract, but there will be higher bidders.
The Kings could be one. Dedmon wouldn’t improve the team’s overall talent as much as Vucevic, but he does things Cauley-Stein doesn’t and would leave the Kings enough cap space to add a good backup point guard or wing depth while preserving future cap flexibility.
Sacramento’s approach to free agency could change if Divac gains traction on a deal to acquire someone like Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris.
First, the Kings have to decide what to do with Cauley-Stein and try to retain Harrison Barnes, who has until June 29 to pick up his $25.1 million player option for 2019-20.
Cauley-Stein could see this crossroads coming when we talked that night in New Orleans. Divac must be asking himself if Cauley-Stein will ever be more motivated than he was this season, with a big payday on the horizon, but Cauley-Stein insists there’s more to his game, a possibility the Kings have to consider.
“I’ve gotten better every year,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m only going to continue to get better and better, and I’m just scratching the surface. I’m 25 years old and I’ve been hooping at a high level for a long time.
“I’ve still got more skills that haven’t been brought out, haven’t been drilled, like, we don’t take advantage of it. Like, ‘You don’t take advantage of everything I have.’”
Maybe there’s still time for that. Maybe new coach Luke Walton can make Cauley-Stein a more consistent player and unlock the massive defensive potential he had when he came out of college. That’s the dude the Kings need him to be, but he seems to think he’s someone else.