After an average rookie season in 2015-16, expectations on the development of Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein (WCS) were high. Sacramento used its sixth overall pick to select the raw, yet ultra-athletic 7-footer out of Kentucky. His offensive game needed work. We knew that. But his defense was the attribute that made him desirable to the Kings. He averaged seven points, 5.3 rebounds, and one block in 21 minutes per game in his first NBA season and looked to improve on both sides of the ball going into his second campaign.
WCS's struggles began in the NBA’s Summer League, a place where no NBA player in a regular rotation should be struggling. He looked lost most of the time on offense, and the defense he was known for was nearly nonexistent. WCS averaged 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game against second round draft picks and middling D-League guys. He blamed his struggles mostly on the pressure he applied to himself to perform at a higher level. The WCS Developmental Project had taken a wrong turn.
The first half of WCS’s second professional season has been very underwhelming, which might be too kind of an adjective to describe it. During the first six games of this season, coach Dave Joerger used him in his normal role as DeMarcus Cousins’ backup. WCS's minutes were down to 15 per, and his production reflected the drop in playing time — he didn’t score more than six points or grab more than three rebounds in any of those first six contests. His minutes continued to decline as it became apparent that he had fallen out of favor in Joerger's rotation. There were some 15+ minute game here and there, but there were also a handful of DNPs, and even more games when he received less than seven minutes of playing time. Mid-January is where WCS's season seemed to hit rock bottom. During a 10-game stretch, he averaged 3.2 minutes of playing time, scored two total points and received three DNPs.
And then Rudy Gay got injured.
WCS and Gay do not play the same position. WCS is not Gay’s backup and does not receive Gay’s minutes in his absence. But something changed with the Kings offense after the departure of their second best player. While Gay has enjoyed some of the most productive years of his career in Sacramento, he is known for his isolation habits, taking his defender one-on-one while his teammates hover around with open palms. For a young team laced with to-be-developed players, getting shots and reps are as important as the minutes they play. It seems as though WCS has been one of the main beneficiaries of the suddenly flowing offense.
During the two games following the Gay injury, WCS played 12 minutes in each. Some of the minutes came in garbage time, but he was productive, putting up a five and four in one of the contests. In his third post-Gay contest, WCS notched his then season-high output of 12 points, only his third double-digit scoring game of the year. The Kings beat the Pistons. Two nights later in Cleveland against the defending champion Cavaliers, WCS missed his first double-double of the season by two points but put up an impressive eight point, 10 rebound effort. The Kings won in overtime.
In the last five Kings contests, WCS has averaged 11.6 points and four rebounds per, as well as blocking five shots. He no longer looks as confused and disoriented on the offensive end, and it looks as though his confidence, at least, has returned on the defensive side of the ball. One of WCS's keys to success has been his on-court connection with Ty Lawson. With Darren Collison starting at point guard, Lawson is delegated to running the second unit and knows how to use WCS’s length and athleticism to benefit the team.
A solid percentage of the plays run by Sacramento’s second unit start with a WCS pick-and-roll at the top of the key. Lawson uses his speed to get past defenders, is keen to the physical attributes that WCS possesses and applies his knowledge by feeding the big man either over the top or with a slick bounce pass. In watching this somewhat odd connection, I began to recall another fringe-of-the-rotation big man that was aided by the play of Lawson: JaVale McGee. The duo played together in Denver, and despite playing less than 18 minutes per game, McGee was a contributor. Furthermore, most of McGee's success came when playing with Lawson and not with Andre Miller. The WCS/Lawson connection is referenced by the Kings announcers at the beginning of the video below:
So what does it mean for the team? In the short term, not much. Playoff hopes were all but dashed after Gay went down, as fans in Sacramento began to buzz about draft position and keeping Chicago from inheriting our first round pick. The improved play of WCS is not going to get the Kings back into the playoff picture, but that might be a good thing for him. He will be able to garner more playing time and reps as the season advances and the Kings record declines. The best case scenario: By next season, WCS is skilled and experienced enough to be a legitimate backup to Cousins and a consistent producer for the second unit.