When Willie Cauley-Stein left the University of Kentucky for the NBA, he was a player entering a league on the cusp of an evolution fueled by spacing, versatility and speed.
Now, after finishing up his rookie season for the Sacramento Kings, Cauley-Stein appears to have been a natural for what the league has become.
“I think I fit right into the change of the new NBA,” Cauley-Stein said Friday at an autograph-signing event hosted by Allsports in Fayette Mall. “I think that’s a big reason why I’m so valuable. The ability to space the floor out and switch on the guards. Basically, just being a big guard.”
Cauley-Stein said moving from Lexington to the West Coast was the easiest part of his transition. Joining a league of grown men and professionals took some getting used to, and the rookie center had to deal with turmoil in the Kings’ locker room.
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Throughout the season, disagreements between Coach George Karl and the team’s star player, former Kentucky star DeMarcus Cousins, dominated the headlines in Sacramento. Cauley-Stein described the tension as a “joke,” while another ex-Cat, Rajon Rondo, said this week that he had never seen anything like it in his career.
“I think the biggest struggle was to be able to stay focused through all of the Coach Karl stuff,” Cauley-Stein said while describing the turmoil. “With all the madness we had in our organization, just being able to stay focused and perform.”
Even with the distraction, Cauley-Stein put up solid numbers — 7.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.0 block per game — while averaging 21.4 minutes. While those numbers might not blow you away, Cauley-Stein said it was a good base to build on.
The seven-footer headed into his first NBA offseason with a goal of improving his offensive game. While guys his size usually focus on honing skills for play inside the paint, Cauley-Stein has been working on perimeter skills such as ball-handling and his jump shot.
He has also been chosen for the 2016 USA Men’s Basketball Select Team. Cauley-Stein will join 14 other young players from across the league, including former Kentucky stars Julius Randle and Devin Booker, at the USA Men’s National Team training camp in Las Vegas from July 18-21. The Select Team will train with and scrimmage against the National Team.
“It’s just an opportunity to go and practice against arguably the best players in the league,” Cauley-Stein said. “Kind of just match up and see what you have to work on. See where your game’s at.”
The training camp will also be a way for Cauley-Stein to show off his defensive versatility.
After witnessing an NBA Finals that has been marked by teams seeking out their opponent’s defensive liabilities, Cauley-Stein looks to be a one-size-fits-all defender. With his mobility and length, and with the league catching on to his style of play, Cauley-Stein could become more valuable to the Kings.
“I felt pretty comfortable,” Cauley-Stein said on what he has been asked to do so far in the NBA. “It’s basketball, it’s simple. If you put in the work you’re going to be good.”