Since John Calipari took over the Kentucky basketball program in 2009, he has turned it into a factory for NBA draft picks. Nineteen of his players have been drafted during this five-year stretch, most of them as underclassmen who “succeeded and proceeded” as Cal likes to call it rather than being one (or two in some cases)-and-done.
Junior center Willie Cauley-Stein very easily could have joined that group, but has surprised everybody by sticking around for two more years than he really had to. While Cauley-Stein didn’t dominate as a freshman or sophomore, he did more than enough to help secure a spot in the first round. Yet, he passed on the bright lights and the large paychecks because he wanted to compete for a national championship and develop more before making the jump to the NBA.
The odds were against him to increase his stock much. Projected to be a mid-to-late first rounder in each of the last two years, Cauley-Stein is going to be a year older – which is always a big difference due to the value put on youth in the draft. Only a combined eight juniors have been selected in the top 10 over the last five years, including just one in 2011, 2013 and 2014. He also stood the chance to lose minutes to another talented recruiting class brought in by Calipari that has the potential to produce a few additional draft picks as soon as this year.
However, things have started to click for Cauley-Stein in a way that they never have before at the perfect time. He’s actually leading the Wildcats in minutes played at 24 a night because he has become the anchor of their top-ranked, and flat out suffocating at most times, defense. Cauley-Stein is averaging 10.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks a game, but that hardly tells the story of how good he has been this season.
On a per-40 minute basis, he’s putting up 16.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 2.8 blocks. He’s shooting the ball at an incredibly efficient 60 percent from the field, and is up to 60 percent at the free throw line as well – a 23 percent increase from his freshman year. He’s also only fouling 2.9 times per 40 minutes, compared to 4.1 as a freshman and 4.5 as a sophomore. His PER of 31.16 puts him among the top 30 in the country and most importantly he’s in a class of his own even in a draft like this that may be remembered for its abundance of talented big man.
As a true seven footer (in shoes) with a 7’2 wingspan and a 9’2 standing reach, Cauley-Stein is without any question the most imposing defensive force college basketball has to offer. With him serving as the final line of defense, Kentucky is number one in four major statistical categories: points allowed (47.8), scoring margin (27.5), blocked shots (8.2) and field goal percentage defense (29.7). They’re 13-0 thanks largely to their defense with their most difficult opponents already defeated. They could run through SEC play in record fashion, which is why a lot of people are talking about the potential of them running the table and going undefeated en route to winning the national championship.
Cauley-Stein doesn’t just serve as the last line of defense, though. What makes him a truly special prospect is his ability to impact the game defensively without just hanging around the rim waiting to block shots. He excels at hedging on the pick-and-roll and helping against attacking guards. In fact, his perimeter defense and lateral movement are so adept for someone of his size that Calipari often plays him at the top of their full court press, where his size, length and mobility make him a scary sight for guards trying to advance the ball.
And, surprisingly, Cauley-Stein has even impressed offensively. He’s developed some noticeable polish on that end of the floor. He may never be a primary option offensively, but he doesn’t look to be limited to just a finisher around the rim as some worried he could be early on in his career.
If the latest trend holds true and only one junior is selected in the top 10, it’s almost a virtual lock to be Cauley-Stein. That may be selling him a bit short, though. The top five is not out of the question at all. His major improvements this year help create the belief that there are other levels he can take his game to still. He is only 21 years old after all. But, unlike some of the younger underclassmen who will be his biggest competition to go in that range, he has the ability to come in and help right away. Often compared to Dallas Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, who has won a championship and is having a huge year for the contending Mavericks this year, Cauley-Stein should be able to do a lot of the same things over the course of his career.
Of the teams vying for a spot in the top five, Cauley-Stein jumps out as a most ideal fit on the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves depending on whether they plan to shop Nikola Pekovic. He’d also be great in Boston, Indiana, Charlotte and New Orleans.
That is – if he decides to leave. While it may seem like a foregone conclusion, the decision was nearly as clear-cut the last two years too. Very few people would have stayed in his position, so it’d be silly to rule it out a third time.
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