John Clay

Worth watching is a freethinking ex-Cat in a new NBA home

Nick Richards not sure why so many people compare him to Willie Cauley-Stein

Nick Richards spoke to the media on June 7 about the comparison Kentucky Coach John Calipari made between him and former Wildcat Willie Cauley-Stein and the bond the 2019-2020 Kentucky team has already already formed.
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Nick Richards spoke to the media on June 7 about the comparison Kentucky Coach John Calipari made between him and former Wildcat Willie Cauley-Stein and the bond the 2019-2020 Kentucky team has already already formed.

Anthony Davis is joining LeBron James out in La La Land, where DeMarcus Cousins’ tour is also making a pit stop. Julius Randle is headed to the Big Apple, though not to toil for the suddenly star-studded Nets. (Sad.) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander woke up one morning to find himself a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And Trey Lyles just had his relationship status switched to “available.”

Such is life for John Calipari’s multitude of ex-Cats in the chaotic world of the NBA, where the only certainties are Woj bombs (Adrian Wojnarowski’s scoops) and uncertainty. But now that the dust from the free-for-all that is the league’s free agency period has settled, we can get a grasp on just who will be where when the play-for-pay guys start taking three steps between dribbles come October.

And you might be surprised to learn the one former Kentucky star headed to a new home who intrigues me most is — drumroll — Willie Cauley-Stein.

After four years with the woebegone Sacramento Kings, the former UK center opted out and ended up signing a one-year, $1.7 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. He did so after the Kings initially extended a $6.3 million qualifying offer that made Cauley-Stein a restricted free agent. Sacramento later rescinded that offer not long after the ex-Cat made it clear publicly through his agent that he wanted a fresh start elsewhere.

This shouldn’t strike UK fans as odd. Cauley-Stein has always been a different dude. That’s what made him such a joy to cover, from the changing hair color to the new tattoos to the thoughtful, candid answers to most every media question. In a long line of Wildcats fast-tracking to the NBA — not that there’s anything wrong with that — Cauley-Stein was a three-year breath of fresh air.

As a pro, however, the Kansas native has been, well, underwhelming. Blame it on the chronically inept Kings, but most would like the No. 6 overall pick in the (2015) draft to average more than 10.1 points and 6.4 rebounds his first four years in the league. Sacramento’s record these past four seasons: 33-49, 32-50, 27-55 and 39-43 last year.

No wonder Cauley-Stein jumped at the chance to join a franchise that has been to five consecutive NBA Finals. Not that these are the same Golden State Warriors, mind you. Kevin Durant has joined Kyrie Irving with the Brooklyn Nets. Andre Iguodala was traded to Memphis. After spending most of the season on the bench rehabbing injuries, Cousins signed with the Lakers. And Klay Thompson is rehabbing the ACL he tore in the Game 6 loss to the Raptors.

That flood of flux opens a door for Cauley-Stein, who couldn’t be happier. He’s going to a winning franchise with a stable coach and a pair of established stars in Steph Curry and Draymond Green. “I’m interested in how they see where I fit,” WCS told the media Monday during the NBA’s summer league play in Las Vegas.

As for his fellow UK alums, the Davis/James combo of the Lakers vs. the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George combo of the Clippers will make Los Angeles the NBA’s new epicenter. Randle joins Kevin Knox with the Knicks, who hope to remind fans there is more than one team in New York. If the Thunder does deal Russell Westbrook after dealing George, Gilgeous-Alexander becomes the point guard for an OKC team with upwards of 100 first-round picks the next few seasons. (That’s a conservative estimate.)

Meanwhile, Lyles is suddenly job hunting after having his restricted free agent offer pulled by the Nuggets. And that’s not even mentioning the new guys — PJ Washington with Charlotte; Tyler Herro with Miami and Keldon Johnson with San Antonio. Being a Kentucky fan trying to follow your former favorites in the NBA entails a heavy workload. It’s the price you pay.

Me, I’ll be eager to see how Cauley-Stein does in Journey’s “City by the Bay.” Always a freethinker, he has charted a different path, one as a happy Warrior, one worth watching.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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