Willie Cauley-Stein says starting or coming off the bench doesn’t affect his approach.
“When I (start), I do the same thing as when I come off the bench — play with a lot of energy,” Cauley-Stein said. “You can only control your energy and effort, so I fly around and be extra active, and it makes everybody else do it. It’s my game plan.”
Those qualities are why coach George Karl has returned to starting his rookie center. Cauley-Stein was a starter before an open dislocation of his right index finger on Dec. 3 sidelined him for 12 games.
The former University of Kentucky star then missed two games with a lacerated right middle finger.
Both injuries happened while Cauley-Stein was defending and he hit his hand against the backboard.
The Kings had some good showings without him but seemed to be searching for someone to provide a defensive spark, particularly to start games.
After watching another listless start in Wednesday’s loss to New Orleans, Karl said he would look to move to a more defensive starting group.
Cauley-Stein started Thursday at Utah and scored six quick points, and the Kings held the Jazz to 12 points in the first quarter. The starting lineup of Cauley-Stein, Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore and Rajon Rondo is 4-3, the only combination with a winning record.
That group is 4.9 points better than its opposition when on the court this season.
“I thought Willie Cauley-Stein was really good defensively in his assignments early in the game,” Karl said. “His activity, his length and having Cuz (DeMarcus Cousins) and him in the game was productive.”
Cauley-Stein’s presence also allows Gay to play his natural spot, small forward, and Cousins can play power forward, giving the Kings a big frontline that can be imposing.
“It takes a load off me,” Cousins said. “I’ve got a huge load a lot of games, and having Willie makes it easier and helps me out so much. I think he’s very seasoned on the defensive end for a rookie. He has the potential to be a very good player in this league, and I’m glad to have him back.”
While Cauley-Stein was out, he studied areas he’d help when healthy. On offense, he saw he’d need to find holes in defenses and get to the rim for easy looks.
“For me, it’s vital since I’m not going to handle the ball,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m not going to be engaged in it, so I’ve got to find openings.”
But the biggest takeaways for the rookie were defensively and how to take away opponents’ freedom to operate on offense.
“I take up a lot of space, and (I have the) ability to switch out on guards, to guard a guard and get back to the big real quick,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s big (stuff). That’s vital; that’s why I’m here.”
Karl has lamented the Kings’ obsession with offense over defense, but Cauley-Stein knows that’s not why the Kings selected him sixth overall in the NBA Draft.
While Cauley-Stein has the ability to affect the game in the halfcourt at 7 feet, his quickness and speed also play into the open court. Few big men can outrun him.
“That’s why I’m such an asset to our team, ” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m taking up a lot of space, but I’m fast, too, so I’m able to keep up with everybody, keep up with the pace of the game. It’s only going to get better.”