He’s not exactly a secret anymore – both Draft Express and Sam Vecenie of CBS Sports have him ranked in their top six players – but Willie Cauley-Stein is one of the most interesting big men in a draft loaded with them.
I’ll admit I might be biased as I have a bit of a history with Cauley-Stein – although “history” may be a stretch as I coached one game against him in high school football – but I’m not sure there’s a player more representative of how the NBA is played today than the 7-footer from Kentucky.
The NBA Draft Combine isn’t the best predictor of success in the NBA, but Cauley-Stein had the fifth-highest standing reach among those measured at 9’3″, and he was the second-tallest player at 7’0.5″. (Frank Kaminsky was the tallest at 7’0.75″.) Combining his measurements with the attributes we witnessed during his three seasons at Kentucky seem to equate to an incredibly productive player, but there are reasons he isn’t going to be the first overall pick:
As Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress breaks down perfectly in this video, Cauley-Stein has obvious weaknesses in his game. A player with his size and athleticism averaging fewer than nine points and seven rebounds is a cause for concern. Even if your argument for Cauley-Stein was the platoon system John Calipari implemented at Kentucky this season, 79 players in the NCAA averaged at least eight points and six rebounds while playing fewer than 28 minutes per game. (Cauley-Stein averaged 8.9 points and 6.4 rebounds in 26 minutes per game.)
Cauley-Stein hasn’t developed a reliable jumper in his three seasons, leading to his underwhelming points per game numbers. The only skill he has relating to scoring is his dunking ability, and while this is impressive, it would have been nice to see some development before declaring for the draft..
With the increased knowledge on rim protection and how it affects defenses, it’s important to remember that defensive rebounding is still one of the most important parts of defense, as it literally ends the possession. Cauley-Stein only grabbed 17.3 percent of the defensive rebounds this season for Kentucky (which caused me to scroll four pages on this list), a number that’s far too low for a 7-footer on a good defensive team.
There’s some noise in the rebounding data as Cauley-Stein’s teammate – and fellow top prospect Karl Anthony-Towns – pulled down an impressive 22.3 percent of defensive rebounds, and Kentucky grabbed the second-most rebounds in the nation with Cauley-Stein as a significant player. However, it’s another red flag for a top prospect.
It’s important to remember that at one time there were doubts about Kevin Durant, Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn were drafted ahead of Stephen Curry, and Thomas Robinson was a higher-rated prospect than Andre Drummond. No prospect is without flaws, and that’s certainly applicable for Willie Cauley-Stein, but:
There’s so much defensive potential from Cauley-Stein in an era where defense, and especially rim protection, may matter more than ever. Only six players averaged at least 1.2 steals and 1.7 blocks this season, and Cauley-Stein was one of them while playing in fewer minutes than the other qualifiers. However, steals and blocks aren’t what make Cauley-Stein the most intriguing defensive prospect in the draft.
The Golden State Warriors boasted the best defense in the league this year with a 98.2 defensive rating, per NBA.com. While Andrew Bogut was an anchor for the defense and is unquestionably one of the best defenders in the league, he missed 13 games in the middle of the season in which the Warriors put up a better defensive rating of 97.7. A significant reason the Warriors maintained their defensive success was the ability to switch all pick-and-rolls and other interchanges that opposing offenses employ with no worry of being exploited.
Cauley-Stein may be the cyborg version of this style of defense, as he could guard every position at Kentucky with great success:
At a time where Kentucky needed defense the most, and on a guard who’s projected to be a first-round pick, no less, Cauley-Stein ran the length of the floor with Jerian Grant and forced him to take a contested step-back three to seal the Wildcats’ Elite Eight victory. Cauley-Stein has the ability to switch any pick-and-roll and force even the most athletic of players into a tough, contested shot.
The most obvious strength for Cauley-Stein is the potential rim protection ability with his 9’3″ standing reach and kangaroo-like bounce. Cauley-Stein’s combination of size and agility is the best among big men in this year’s draft, and he could transform a team’s defense into one that’s respectable almost immediately.
While his offensive game leaves a lot to be desired, his free throw numbers show signs of promise. After shooting 37 percent from the line on three attempts per game in his freshman season, he improved to a still-putrid-but-improving 48 percent on over two attempts per game his sophomore year and got to a respectable 62 percent on over three attempts per game last season. His growth in free throw percentage shows promise for some ability to develop an offensive game outside of three feet, but is also a step away from the terrible “Hack-a-Player” we’ve had to witness this postseason. (An ugliness only surpassed by its discussion.)
The part of offense that gets undersold is the ability to dunk a basketball. Coach speak tells you that a dunk is worth as many points as a layup (something usually told to a team being dunked on rather than the one doing the dunking), but in reality there’s more to a dunk than the points it’s rewarded:
On this play, Monta Ellis runs a simple pick-and-roll at the top of the key, and on Ellis’s drive, Tim Duncan sneaks over a second too soon, leaving a lob to Tyson Chandler wide open – something he’s able to do because of his incredible length and leaping ability.
The only way to combat this is for Marco Belinelli to jump in front of Chandler, preventing Ellis from making the lob. However, in doing so, he would leave Chandler Parsons – a 38 percent three-point shooter – open for one of the most efficient shots in the game.
Willie Cauley-Stein will turn 22 just before the season starts, making him one of the older prospects in the draft. But with his combination of size, athleticism and raw talent, he’s also maybe the most difficult player to peg when it comes to a floor and a ceiling.
But then again, how bad could you possibly be with a name like Willie “Trill” Cauley-Stein?