Willie Cauley-Stein's Make or Break Season

Willie Cauley-Stein has shown flashes of brilliance in his first three years in the NBA, but he has been quite inconsistent during his professional career. With restricted free agency approaching and a crowded competition for minutes in the frontcourt this season, Cauley-Stein's play this season could earn him a long-term role in the Sacramento Kings' frontcourt and a big contract this offseason--or it could expedite a search for potential trade partners.

With the start of the NBA season rapidly approaching, the Sacramento Kings have plenty of reason to be excited about their big man rotation. Marvin Bagley III will get plenty of chances to show the tenacious rebounding and staggering athleticism that made him a star at Duke and the second overall pick in the 2018 draft. Harry Giles appears to be healthier than he has been since dominating everyone in his high school class three years ago. Skal Labissiere turned a lot of heads during Kings' Media Day, having bulked up significantly over the summer.

However, the odds are good that another young big man will get the starting nod at center on Opening Night. That job will go to the elder statesman of the Kings' young gauntlet up front: Willie Cauley-Stein. The former Kentucky big man is the longest-tenured member of the Kings, having been with the team since they selected him with the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Cauley-Stein has certainly not been a bust up to this point in his young NBA career, but he has also shown a frustrating inability to maximize his unprecedented athletic talents. Willie has all the tools to be a breakout candidate this year, and a good year could earn him a sizable contract (as he has repeatedly mentioned throughout the preseason) and could also earn him a key role in Sacramento's future plans. However, he will need to prove that he can be the defensive wrecking ball that he was expected to be coming into the league. Otherwise, if Willie Cauley-Stein does not have a breakout season in 2018-19, the Kings may look to cut bait on him before he hits restricted free agency.

Offense: Room to Run

One of the biggest issues with the Kings' offense last season was their glacial pace. Despite having one of (if not the) fastest players in the league in De'Aaron Fox, the Kings finished the season with the slowest pace of play in the NBA. Given Fox's talents and his seemingly undisputed reign over the starting point guard spot, that pace will certainly pick up this season.

Fox might have been the most obvious victim of the Kings' inexplicable decision to let Zach Randolph and others clamp down on the team's ability to run, but Willie Cauley-Stein might actually have been the biggest victim. With almost unparalleled athletic tools for his size, Cauley-Stein is almost unfair for opponents to have to try to deal with in transition. When he gets a full head of steam, he can charge to the rim before his opponents can do anything to stop him. Just look at how he appears out of nowhere on this play, and note how a former Defensive Player of the Year can't even manage to get in his way:

His speed at his size makes Willie Cauley-Stein a serious threat whenever he is on the run. He scored a mind-boggling 1.376 points per possession in transition, which ranked in the 93rd percentile league-wide. Unfortunately, transition scoring accounted for only 9.4% of his baskets--not a low percentage by any means, but below the Kings' overall numbers (despite having the slowest pace in the league, the Kings ranked 10th in transition buckets and used 13.8% of their possessions in transition).

Willie has improved his scoring average in every season of his career. He averaged 7.0 points per game as a rookie, 8.1 points per game as a sophomore, and 12.0 points per game last season. However, his increased scoring has come at the cost of scoring efficiently--his True Shooting Percentage has declined in every season of his career.

Last year, in particular, Cauley-Stein took more mid-range jump shots last year as part of his efforts to expand his game. While a refined jump shot will certainly help the team given their spacing concerns last season, he can create a lot more space with his feet than he can with his jump shot. Hopefully, an increased pace this season will give Willie Cauley-Stein more chances to show off his wheels.

Defense: Limitless Potential, Limited Attention

While Willie Cauley-Stein's growth on the offensive end certainly increases his value, the Sacramento Kings did not draft him to rack up points. They drafted him because he was a defensive star at Kentucky who had the physical tools to be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. It is not an exaggeration to say that Cauley-Stein is a one-of-a-kind athlete--only seven players have EVER combined for faster lane agility and 3/4 court sprint times, and none of them are above 6'4". Fans tend to overstate how many players can actually guard all five positions, but Willie Cauley-Stein is one of the few players in the league who actually has the physical tools to do so.

The issues for Willie's defense at the NBA level do not lie with his inherent abilities. Instead, his shortcomings on that end have been far more mental than physical. He has a bad habit of losing focus when the offense veers away from his man, and can often get caught ball-watching. Cauley-Stein is quite adept at guarding his man one-on-one (indeed, he ranked in the 79th percentile in isolation defense last season), but doesn't switch in pick-and-roll coverage with enough energy or with enough focus on which direction the offensive flow is going. While he had a little bit less of the "deer in the headlights" look last year that was typical of his defensive showings from his first two years in the league, Willie Cauley-Stein did not grow as much defensively under Dave Joerger as his most ardent supporters would have hoped. Willie has all of the elements of defense that can't be taught but will need to learn quite a bit more to live up to his potential on that end of the court. 

Future Outlook

Willie Cauley-Stein could easily prove all of his doubters wrong this season. His offensive game has expanded enough to merit some measure of defensive focus, and his elite (even by the NBA's ridiculous standards) athleticism is more than enough to make him a defensive force. If he lives up to his potential on that end of the floor and gets a few more chances to run on offense, Willie Cauley-Stein could cement himself as a part of the Kings' core going forward. If not, he may have to settle for a cheap contract this offseason in the hopes of proving himself for another franchise.

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