(Orginally posted at Upside & Motor)
Willie Cauley-Stein has arguably been the most impactful player in college basketball this season. Kentucky is undefeated through its first 13 games – which featured quality opponents such as Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, California Los Angeles and Louisville – due to its defense. The Wildcats lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and Cauley-Stein has been the difference maker.
The combination of his physical profile and athleticism makes him a huge asset in rim protection. Cauley-Stein is very aggressive rotating off the weak-side and can elevate off the ground in a pinch. He ranked sixth in the country in blocks last season and his numbers are only down in this one because his frontcourt-mate Karl Towns, Jr. is a capable shot blocker himself, which has given John Calipari the flexibility to have Cauley-Stein defending away from the basket more.
Cauley-Stein is very comfortable moving in space and had already exhibited the ability to guard smaller players on switches, possessing the lateral quickness to keep pace on drives and the closing speed to effectively contest shots on the perimeter. But Calipari has stretched Cauley-Stein some more this season, having him guard Jonathan Holmes for most of the game against Texas and be the man on the top of the full-court press he broke out for a few possessions against Louisville.
He plays with really active hands, often trying to strip opposing big men when they catch the ball in the high post or on the perimeter, and uses his length and quickness to deflect or jump in front of a number of passes around his general area. Cauley-Stein is currently averaging 2.1 steals per 40 minutes and his per-game average ranks fifth among all SEC players.
When I profiled him in the offseason, I mentioned how Cauley-Stein’s toughness is what concerns most regarding his transition to the next level. Because of Towns Jr.’s presence, he hasn’t always matched up with the opponent’s most physical big man this season, but he looked comfortable guarding the likes of Holmes, Myles Turner and Montrezl Harrell, though it’s important to notice all these players are shorter and weaker than him.
His defensive rebounding rate was very underwhelming in SEC play last season, not just because of Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson but also because he often relied on his athleticism to control the glass rather than boxing out opponents and keeping them from getting inside position. That’s still been a problem at times this season but his physical profile and his athletic ability permit him to track the ball off the rim with quickness. As a result, he’s still rebounding at a high level (collecting 17.4 percent of opponents’ misses, according to Basketball Reference) even without full time attention to detail.
Kentucky has a pretty bad offense without much structure, which fails to maximize Cauley-Stein’s top skill on that end of the court. He is a prototype catch-and-score big but the team doesn’t run many pick-and-rolls, so we only get to see him finishing in fast-breaks or off of offensive rebounds. Cauley-Stein is great in transition, sprinting up the court fluidly, proving able to handle the ball on the break and capable of playing above the rim as a target for lobs. He can rebound outside of his area thanks to his seven-foot-two wingspan and has collected 12 percent of Kentucky’s misses for the third straight year. According to Hoop Math.com, Cauley-Stein has shot 76 percent on 58 attempts at the rim and transformed 17 of his 31 offensive rebounds into putbacks.
But Cauley-Stein’s lack of touch on non-dunk opportunities remains the same. He is an explosive leaper but can’t hang in the air and struggles to make layups around length. Kentucky is going to him in the post more often this season and Cauley-Stein has flashed a soft touch on a turnaround, right-handed hook when he gets separation. Nevertheless, his footwork is not always polished and he has consistently bricked those looks (21 misses on 31 two-point jump-shots) when contested, which happens often because Kentucky can’t generate any spacing around him.
On a high note, Cauley-Stein is improving his foul shooting percentage for the third straight season. He doesn’t bend his knees but has been very calm going through his progression at the foul line, flexing his elbows and flicking his wrist consistently well, only struggling with the force with which he releases the ball – sometimes short-arming, sometimes bricking. His turnovers are also down, which is another promising sign for his long-term development.
Editor’s Note: 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.