As the final seconds ticked off the clock in the Kentucky Wildcats National Championship game loss against the UConn Huskies, Willie Cauley-Stein sat helplessly on the bench, reserved to watching his team fall without him. A left ankle injury in the Sweet 16 against the Louisville Cardinals knocked him out of the tournament, and it was a huge blow for the Wildcats front court. After a bitter end to a great tournament run, Cauley-Stein announced that he would be returning to school for his junior year.
Returning to school is a good move by Cauley-Stein on more than one front. Not only will he have another chance to win college basketball’s most-coveted prize, which he saw slip through his team’s collective fingers last season, but he will also have the opportunity to further prove himself and show his strengths to NBA talent evaluators before entering the draft.
Offensively, Cauley-Stein lives on the low block. It’s natural for a 7’0″, 242 pound center to primarily play down low because it’s where he should have an advantage, but the truth for Cauley-Stein is that he plays almost exclusively near the rim because his offensive game is incredibly limited at this point. Most of his points still come from dunks, and it will be difficult for him to survive this way in the NBA.
On post-ups, he looks uncomfortable with the ball in his hands, as he possesses no go-to move or anything resembling above-average footwork. He lacks touch around the rim, and he can’t consistently knock down a jump hook. One thing that would benefit Cauley-Stein is learning how to properly seal his man deeper towards the rim. As it stands now, he allows his man to force him to catch the ball too far away from the rim for it to be an advantageous situation. He has yet to figure out how to best utilize his size, and he will struggle to be more than a mediocre post player until he learns to do so.
The further Cauley-Stein plays from the rim, the worse things get. Right now, he lacks the ability to be a face up threat, mostly because he can’t dribble and has no moves to work his way around his defender and to the rim. Also, his aforementioned lack of touch makes him a poor, inconsistent jump shooter, which allows his man to sag off of him and key on the drive. He’s not a guy that’s going to create for himself, and that’s why it will be important for him to play on an NBA team with slashing guards that can set him up for easy looks.
Despite currently being limited offensively, his mobility and athleticism give him upside as a pick & roll guy. His athleticism and size (7’2″ wingspan) allow him to sky above his defender on the roll to catch lobs above the rim and throw them down. The biggest thing holding Cauley-Stein back as a screener would be his hands. They are akin to bricks, and it’s fair to question if he will be able to catch the bullet passes thrown between two defenders with regularity when he rolls.
Defensively, Cauley-Stein lacks the strength to hold off many big guys, which will be a huge issue for NBA teams, but he can sometimes make up for a lack of strength with his length and athleticism. Couple his length and athleticism with impeccable timing on his jumps, and you get a tremendous rim protector. If he develops enough strength, he could serve as the anchor of an NBA defense given his ability to disrupt the flow of an offense. His sophomore season, he averaged 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes, and it’s likely that he will break Kentucky’s all-time block record before all is said and done.
It wouldn’t be fair to label Cauley-Stein strictly a shot blocker though. He forces chaos on defense by racking up steals, too. Last season, he averaged 2.0 steals per 40 minutes. He’s quick to jump into passing lanes, and he’s also got a crafty way of reaching around his man in the post and poking the ball away.
When he gets drawn out to the perimeter, his mobility allows Kentucky to defend the pick & roll myriad ways. He’s quick enough to hedge hard and recover to his man, and his exceptional lateral quickness allows him to switch onto the ball-handler if necessary.
His biggest problem defensively is foul trouble. He’s very handsy, and his fouls are often of the lazy, head-scratching variety. If he can’t stay in games, his skills become useless. It will be interesting to watch his development to see if he can learn to stay within himself and make smart plays without fouling.
On the glass, he doesn’t excel the way you would hope a seven-footer would. He doesn’t possess the physicality necessary to dominate the glass right now, and he doesn’t get a body on his man right when the shot goes up. In his sophomore campaign, he averaged a mere 3.5 defensive rebounds per game. He performs much better on the offensive glass, utilizing his great energy to get to the ball before his opponent can. His offensive rebounding skills could ultimately help him secure a role as a backup center on an NBA team that adds value in the way of hustle plays.
In his sophomore campaign, Cauley-Stein didn’t quite demonstrate the level of improvement NBA teams are looking for year-over-year from top prospects. He actually regressed in a couple offensive statistical categories i.e. points and assists. A portion of that can certainly be attributed to more guys surrounding him that took shots away from him, but he still didn’t demonstrate much improvement in the way of a post game or jump shot on that end of the floor. The good news for him is that he will make his money on the defensive end. He’s a natural rim protector, and he made good strides on that end of the ball last season. Entering presumably his final college season before making the leap to the NBA, this will be the year where he is looking to put the complete package together. Cauley-Stein’s offensive game will never be at the same level as his defense, but if he can show continued growth, he could easily hear his name called in the lottery in the 2015 NBA Draft.