Boogie On: Filling the DeMarcus Cousins Void
Ben Dowsett examines whether Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere can step into some big shoes in Sacramento.
Whatever your thoughts on it, an era has ended in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins’ next technical foul suspension will be served under a new flag, his basketball played while wearing a new jersey.
Typically accompanying the end of such a colorful era is that pesky reality: The beginning of a new era.
In Sacramento’s case, it’s one they’re almost historically badly prepared for among franchises who traded an All-Star level player in the recent past. These deals typically net multiple young pieces and picks: The Jazz got a veteran point guard replacement (Devin Harris), the third overall pick from the most recent draft (Derrick Favors), cash considerations and two first-round picks from the Nets for Deron Williams barely six years ago. Williams almost surely wasn’t as valuable a player in a vacuum as Cousins is today.
The Kings didn’t even approach half that haul, and while remaining contract length and Boogie’s notable flaws definitely played a role, it’s mostly their own fault. They could have had more in return at dozens of points prior to the actual trade, but the devastating combo of a meddlesome owner and an incompetent figurehead making major basketball decisions never allowed it to happen.
Time moves forward regardless. And while the short-term coffers for replacing even chunks of Cousins’ production are woefully short, there are a couple intriguing frontcourt names who at least make the future worth talking about.
The DeAndre Jordan comparisons are virtually unavoidable for Willie Cauley-Stein. And while this typically lazy shorthand misses some details just like all of them do, its origins are easy enough to see. Both spent at least a season under a well-known post bruiser (Zach Randolph spent most of Jordan’s rookie year in Los Angeles), but neither really boasted many of those kinds of skills to develop. Both entered the league as little but raw athletic freaks with NBA size and hops.
The current iterations look nothing alike as defenders, but the vague outlines are there. They’re most obvious when each guy blocks a shot; Cauley-Stein’s combination of pure hops plus great timing with his opponents’ jumps is when he looks most eerily similar to DeAndre:
Cauley-Stein has posted respectable SportVU figures as a rim protector to this point in the league. The timing similarities mostly end there, at least when comparing the present versions of both players.
Cauley-Stein is clearly a guy with years of experience letting his athleticism make up for deficiencies elsewhere in his game, a tactic all but a handful of NBA guys have to rid themselves of quickly. Watch him make a visibly unforgivable error by not even getting so much as a hand on his man for a box-out, but then erase it moments later with sheer freakiness.
That stuff may fly for now, but it won’t if Cauley-Stein is to ever playing meaningful minutes for a competitive team. Those couple beats of complete inactivity, even as he’s looking right at the guy he’s supposed to box out, are a microcosm of some of his biggest warts – it’s almost as if he feels like he needs to save up all his energy for those giant leaps. That’s not how things work in the NBA.
The effect is most visible in his rebounding numbers, which are horrific at both a team and individual level. He’s in the bottom 15 for both defensive rebounding percentage and overall rebounding percentage among 80 guys 6-foot-10 or taller, and borderline bottom-five among a smaller group of guys at least 7-foot or taller. The Kings have been about an average rebounding team on the year; they drop to among the league’s worst when Cauley-Stein is on the floor.
It’s tough to say how much of this is fixable given all the turmoil in town since he arrived, and maybe even tougher to say whether the mental leap Jordan made to go from a raw athlete to a defensive star is possible for Cauley-Stein. Most guys don’t have the passion for it.
Some of the indicators are decent. WCS swipes steals more often than Jordan at this age, and doesn’t foul as often. Jordan was two years younger when he entered the league, so these comparison numbers include two extra seasons for him.
This is usually an advantage to the younger guy no matter what, and probably is here too. Cauley-Stein’s extremely abnormal development cycle to this point could form an argument the other way, though. Jordan made his leap later than most, and it’s not out of the question for Cauley-Stein either if his true, healthy development only really began about two weeks ago (it might have).
If he can come anywhere close on the defensive end, the other side of the ball definitely contains some positive signs. Cauley-Stein is no bucket-getter, but he’s also nowhere near the liability Jordan was offensively at age 23, even despite DeAndre’s extra NBA years by that point.
Jordan’s turnover rate at that age was nearly double Cauley-Stein’s at this point in his career, and that came with a smaller team possession load than Willie has handled. Cauley-Stein is already in the mid-60s as a free-throw shooter, a level Jordan still hasn’t even approached in nine years. Likewise, he has dribble skills Jordan would kill for:
That’s a limited skill picture, of course. Cauley-Stein is already showing impressive chops as a roll man in pick-and-roll sets, with the hops and dexterity to dunk just about anything close to him, but he has a long way to go to match Jordan – maybe the most powerful player in the game in this role.
That’s really the rub as far as the Jordan comparisons go. There’s a real chance Cauley-Stein already has more complementary skills than the Clippers’ star right now, but Jordan isn’t great because of any of those things; he’s great because of how insanely good he is at the few things he does well, which just happen to be some of the most important skills a big man can have in the modern NBA. Cauley-Stein ever reaching those heights is unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, and whether he ever comes close will define his long-term success.
Toiling in even greater obscurity than Cauley-Stein is Skal Labissiere, the 28th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Once considered an elite blue chip prospect heading into Kentucky, Labissiere had one of the stranger freshman years for a high-ceiling Calipari product. He played just 16 minutes a night and was often overshadowed by bigger names, to the point where it surprised plenty of folks in the league when he even declared for the draft. The general consensus was that Labissiere could use another year of class, even in an NBA world where access to pro training and coaching typically far outweighs any stay-in-school benefits.
That consensus might still be accurate, but now Labissiere’s grading scale gets a whole lot steeper. He’s barely across the 100-minute barrier, and all the numbers in his orbit might as well be question marks.
Labissiere has just the faintest touch of “unicorn” DNA in him – a 6-foot-11 leaper with a big wingspan and some guard skills.
If Cauley-Stein is still struggling to find his feel for the game, Labissiere is still learning the very definition of the term. He has no idea where to be on the floor at a given moment, especially when it comes to defensive rotations and anything second-level on either end. Like a lot of guys in his position, he wants to shoot every time he gets the ball.
He’s also rail thin, listed at just 225 pounds for that 6-foot-11 frame. Labissiere has a long way to go improving his body, though his frame makes it feel easily possible. Until he gets there, he could benefit from a bit more subtlety when he tries to move guys who aren’t even as big as him anyway.
It’s virtually all potential for Labissiere at this point, but it’s tantalizing potential.
His shooting mechanics are fantastic for a guy his size, almost Anthony Davis-esque in that single area. He moves in a unique way that few bigs do, and should be a valuable commodity as a floor-runner once he gets his conditioning up to speed. He gets off the ground incredibly quickly, and it’s only stuff between the ears keeping him from real potential as a rim protector – he has the timing to do it, but is too easily baited into fouls and can’t read decoy actions for what they are just yet.
Labissiere is another of those guys who started playing basketball much later than any of his peers. This can be a false flag, but it certainly means more than nothing. The samples are way too small to judge from, but some of his shooting metrics and on-court team figures are already pointing in the right direction. He only needs a couple of these unicorn skills to hit home at the NBA level to be a successful player, which is what makes his type so salivating.
Between Cauley-Stein and Labissiere, there might be just enough to give Kings fans some modicum of hope for the future of their frontcourt.
Neither will ever duplicate Cousins’ production or even come close, but both could offer elements that fit the modern game more snugly – Cauley-Stein’s shot-blocking and rim-running, Labissiere’s guard skills, length and shooting. The Kings can push the pace more often with two strong bigs running the floor, especially if Labissiere ever adds enough strength to play center on his own and split the pair up more often.
(As an aside, for all his other flaws, it sure would have been fun to see these two get some real time under speedster coach George Karl. The Kings were too busy turning down much bigger Cousins offers and creating in-house drama for that to ever happen, though.)
They could form a pretty tantalizing duo together, too. Labissiere should have the lateral chops to stick with most small-ball power forwards these days, and if the strength ever comes around, he’d be a problem for those guys on the other side. He can already shoot over all of them, and if the shooting touch from deep becomes more than a hypothetical at some point, spacing won’t be an issue around Cauley-Stein.
The duo has played 71 minutes together this year. That’s not long enough to make any final calls, especially with the garbage time they saw before Cousins’ departure, but it’s long enough to note that their plus-16 net per-100-possession differential is pretty damn impressive. Labissiere has the best on court/off court splits on the team since Cousins left, another sign that’s still positive even if it’s due for a regression when the samples stabilize.
It’s early, and the Kings have earned less trust than any other NBA front office. There are still so many ways they could screw this up. Even if they don’t, there’s no guarantee Cauley-Stein or Labissiere provides any real long term excitement.
They’re easily the best of a very limited frontcourt lot, though, and all the drama might have caused a few folks in the league to look past these types in Sacramento. The next couple years will be a fascinating test of life after DeMarcus Cousins.
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