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NBA AM: Cauley-Stein Uses Kentucky to Advantage

Willie-Cauley Stein is the rare multi-year Kentucky star, and that gives him a leg up in this year’s draft class.

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Basketball Insiders caught up with Myles Turner at the 2015 NBA Draft Combine.

Cauley-Stein Uses Kentucky Experience to Vault to NBA

At this past year’s McDonald’s All-American game, more prospects than usual had not yet chosen a school ahead of the high school all-star event, which of course meant each and every one of them was asked whether they were seriously considering the University of Kentucky.

The short answer is that almost all of them were because they understood that John Calipari has put together a program that churns out NBA players. Willie Cauley-Stein knows all about that, as he’s a former Kentucky Wildcat heading for a top-10 selection in this June’s draft.

However, having spoken to former teammates that have left Kentucky for the NBA, Cauley-Stein knows that even the most pro-ready program in college basketball can’t possibly teach a player everything he needs to know.

James Young, a former Kentucky player who now is a member of the Boston Celtics, has told Cauley-Stein exactly what changes he can expect.

“The amount of work that has to be put in, the time, the learning the game, studying the game – it’s big hearing it from James like that,” Cauley-Stein said at the Draft Combine. “You can tell you have to grow up at a rapid pace, and by going to Kentucky you’re prepared for that. You grow up fast and you pay attention to detail. That’s what he was telling me is that when you get to that level you have to pay attention to detail. You’ve got to learn at a fast rate because guys are ahead of you.”

While there are some changes in the NBA game, Cauley-Stein also knows that his years at Kentucky prepared him better than most of the other guys in the draft.

“[Playing more than one year there] helped me a lot mentally,” he said. “I’m now one of the older dudes in this draft, which is cool. I went through a lot at Kentucky, so staying there another year didn’t do anything but make it better for me to enter the draft now.”

Now it’s just a matter of convincing a team in the top 10 (and possibly even the top five) that he’s a good fit for their team. He’s a quintessential rim protector, which NBA organizations have fallen in love with in recent years, but he’d like to show them that there’s the potential for him to be productive on both ends of the floor.

“I bring a lot of different things. Skill-wise, the sky is the limit on where I could take it,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’m athletic enough to do a lot of different things, even polishing offensively. If I put the time into doing it, I could do it.”

However, he’s not necessarily selling himself as an offensive force. He knows where he’ll make his bacon, and that’s where his pitch to teams typically begins.

“I want to get really, really good at the stuff I’m already good at it,” Cauley-Stein said. “I want to get better at defense, be dominant on that end. Then over the next three or four years become a player you can throw the ball into and make some magic happen out of it.”

Any team who drafts him will certainly hope he’s capable of that kind of growth, but Cauley-Stein, like a lot of players in this process, has been dealing with all kinds of crazy concerns from teams. Some of the questions he’s been asked have gone well beyond his play on the court.

“It’s a lot of personality stuff—what kind of kid are you, why do you do certain things? Why did you dye your hair blonde? Why do you have all those tattoos?” Cauley-Stein said.

The questions seem odd, but he understands why teams have to ask them.

“A lot of it is just to see what kind of person you are, what kind of person are you going to be in the locker room,” he said. “Just questions like that to feel you out and see if you’re going to be a cancer to the team.”

Cauley-Stein is the furthest thing from a cancer, but he did have an answer for the blonde hair:

“I was young and dumb,” he said with a laugh. “It looked cool for 30 minutes, and now I’ve got to live with it the rest of my life.”

Lucky for him, his hair color from over a year ago won’t really determine where he’s drafted. His defensive prowess and college experience will.

Rakeem Christmas Raises His Draft Stock

Another big man who made significant waves at the NBA Combine was former Syracuse star Rakeem Christmas. With so many of the draft’s best players opting out of the five-on-five portion of the combine (or even the entire event), there really was only opportunity for potential second-rounders to make up big ground in the eyes of scouts, and Christmas did more for himself than arguably anybody else at the event.

Coming out of Syracuse, Christmas has taken his knocks for having played so much zone defense in college, but he believes his value as a pro goes way beyond whatever defensive schemes he may be most familiar with.

“I learned a lot there, how to be a captain,” Christmas said. “I had a lot of great leaders – Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, C.J. Fair – and I learned a lot being around them. I’m going to model myself off them, and it started working for me this year.”

Plenty of postseason experience helped him a lot, too.

“I went to the tournament three times, and I’ve been to the Final Four,” he said. “Not a lot of people have done that, so I told [my teammates] to just keep their heads up. Play our hearts out, and that’s what we did.”

He knew it would be his last tournament, so he took the opportunity to make the most of it.

“Me and Coach [Jim] Boeheim talked about it,” Christmas said. “He told me to go out there and play my heart out, that it was going to be my last tournament and to go out there and play. So that’s what I did.”

Now, he’s trying to sneak into the bottom half of the first round, which isn’t something many people saw coming before the combine.

When asked to rattle off his strengths, he listed several that are exactly the kinds of things teams hope for in a second round pick: “Being assertive, strong, going out there being physical, playing defense, getting rebounds.”

He says he models himself after Taj Gibson, and if he has that kind of success as a pro he’ll be lucky. One can only assume he’s made the “Christmas is coming early to your team” joke about a million times during the interview process, but this kid is no joke. He proved that more than anybody at this year’s combine.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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