Well before his career officially began and just prior to it showing immense promise, Willie Cauley-Stein had confirmed the doubt of those who thought the Sacramento Kings erred by making him a mid-lottery pick last June.
Some skeptical teams red-flagged the former University of Kentucky star during the pre-draft process, using his supposed lack of love for the game and a puzzling ankle injury as means to erase his name from a list of possible selections. Those concerns must have been well-founded, too. It’s not like the league is overflowing with hyper-athletic 7-footers who possess clear Defensive of the Year potential. Questions of approach and health were the only factors keeping Cauley-Stein from being a sure-thing prospect.
After just a few days of training camp in early October, local reports suggested the rookie’s lack of conditioning would limit him to bit player in the season’s early going – and recalled those unknowns that scared other franchises away in the first place. Nevertheless, Cauley-Stein was effective in bursts over the first few weeks of his professional debut. He averaged 4.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in 19.0 minutes per game from late October to the end of November, establishing himself as a normal starter despite coming off the bench in the first game of his career.
But that surprising success would be short-lived. Cauley-Stein missed 12 games with a dislocated right index finger in December, and he returned to the court almost a full month later in less than game shape. The ever-prickly George Karl made sure the public knew about it, too.
“I’ve not seen his conditioning, and I have a feeling it’s probably behind a little bit to play as fast as we want to play,” the veteran coach told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee after Cauley-Stein played just five minutes in his first game back from injury. “I think the thing that sticks in the back of my head is I didn’t think he was in great shape in training camp, so I’m worried.”
Now, though, it’s safe to say that doubt is firmly in Karl’s periphery when it comes to coaching his rookie. Ever since Cauley-Stein recovered from a laceration on the same finger that cost him two games just past the New Year, he’s been an instrumental piece of the puzzle for Sacramento, which has not so coincidentally won eight of its past 14 games to emerge as a serious contender for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Circumstances surrounding the 22-year-old’s improved play and seemingly permanent spot as a starter need nuance. Cauley-Stein was certainly never going to put up eye-popping raw numbers this season, and may never notch the per-game averages normally expected from a player of his draft position. There’s a reason everyone’s favorite player comparison for him is a younger Tyson Chandler, basically. Cauley-Stein is far more likely to reach his star-level ceiling as an all-court defensive ace and pick-and-roll monster than primary scorer.