Willie Cauley-Stein would have surely been a lottery pick on this year’s draft and last one’s too. Yet he’s returning for his junior season at Kentucky. This is as uncommon as it gets these days. According to rumors, Cauley-Stein comes from a family with financial stability and doesn’t need to hurry to start receiving NBA paychecks. And if he really likes the environment at Kentucky and wants to stick around a little while longer, there is nothing wrong with it.
Cauley-Stein is prepared to play in the NBA right now, though. He is a prototypical Tyson Chandler prospect; a rim protector who can catch-and-score out of the pick-and-roll on the other end.
The 21-year-old has great mobility for someone his size (seven-feet, 244 pounds), which makes him a great asset defending the pick-and-roll. John Calipari had Kentucky showing-and-recovering and at times switching against the ball-screen and Cauley-Stein was very good, particularly impressive when forced to guard smaller players in space. He can’t bend his knees much but got in as much of a stance as he could and displayed lateral quickness to stay in front and contain dribble penetration through contact. He played with active hands and his three percent steal rate ranked 10th in the SEC.
His biggest impact on defense came out of his shot blocking, though. Cauley-Stein showed excellent instincts rotating off the weak side and great timing elevating to contest shots. His 12.3 percent block rate led the conference and he averaged only 4.5 personal fouls per 40 minutes.
His toughness is what concerns most regarding his transition to the next level. A strong but smaller opponent like Cory Jefferson was able to push him around in the post, but his rebounding is the most head-scratching aspect of his game. Cauley-Stein collected just 13.4 percent of opponents’ misses last season. It’s important to put those numbers in context; he shared all of his minutes with either Julius Randle or Dakari Johnson, two great rebounders on their own. But Cauley-Stein too often wanted to rely on his athleticism to control the glass rather than boxing out opponents and keep them from getting position below the rim.
Kentucky played far better defense with him rather than without him on the floor, though. The Wildcats gave up only 91.5 points per 100 possessions in 880 minutes with Cauley-Stein in the lineup and 100.1 overall, the difference between the ninth- and the 78th-best defenses in college basketball, according to Ken Pomeroy.
When Kentucky forced misses, Cauley-Stein flashed his athleticism as an option in transition. He sprints down the court far faster than most players his size at this level of competition due to his long strides. On the break, Cauley-Stein can go from the top of the key to the rim in two steps.
Kentucky didn’t run many pick-and-rolls in the half-court but when it did, Cauley-Stein either preferred or was coached to slip screen, prioritizing diving down the lane quickly rather than drawing full contact. He showed great hands to catch the ball on the move, was a target for lobs the few times Kentucky’s guards managed to get him the ball there and flashed decent touch to finish at rim level. 74 percent of his shots were within five feet of the rim and he finished them at a 73 percent clip.
His athleticism also translated in the offensive glass, where Cauley-Stein is able to rebound outside of area due to the combination of his leaping ability, timing chasing the ball off the rim and seven-foot-two wingspan. He grabbed 11.5 percent of Kentucky’s misses, which ranked seventh in the conference. Second chance opportunities are gold and as a result, Kentucky averaged 122.8 points per possessions with Cauley-Stein on the floor and just 112.4 overall.
Away from the basket area, Cauley-Stein is a far less positive presence. His frame helps him set good position in the post but his moves are all unpolished at this point and his hooks are low percentage attempts, as he made just 37.7 percent of his 77 shots away from the rim. He struggles when double-teamed or crowded and turned it over on 14.3 percent of Kentucky’s possessions when he was on the floor, which is not necessarily low in the context of his 14.7 percent usage rate. Cauley-Stein is not an option to short his rolls and find shooters in the perimeter at this point and also missed over half of his free throws last season.
Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.