With the sixth pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Sacremento Kings selected University of Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein. In a time where the Wildcat program has become synonymous with “One and Done,” Cauley-Stein was a flashback to a time where watching a player develop over a few seasons was common in college basketball. During the 2014-15 season, Willie was definitely the lynchpin on the Wildcat team that finished 38-1.
Willie Cauley-Stein arrived in Lexington the year after the Cats won the 2012 NCAA title as part of another one of head coach John Calipari’s top-ranked recruiting class. Unfortunately, the 2013 Kentucky team failed to make the NCAA Tournament, losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Cauley-Stein, while obviously athletic, was raw as a basketball player. His offensive skills were non-existent and defensively his propensity to leave his feet to block shots kept him in foul trouble. The 2014 UK team was supposed to be better and many picked that team to go undefeated. The team started slow, dropping more than a few winnable games before “tweaking” and making the 2014 title game. Cauley-Stein was injured during the Sweet 16 matchup with intrastate rival Louisville and he wasn’t able to play for the Cats for the rest of their historic run.
When Willie Cauley-Stein decided to return for his Junior season, along with Alex Poythress, the Big Blue Nation had big things in mind for the 2014-15 Wildcats. For the first time in the John Calipari era, the boys in Blue were going to have Junior leaders with NCAA Tournament experience to pair with yet another highly ranked recruiting class. Expectations from the fans were tempered, but after a successful run in the Bahamas against professional , excitement started building. Even though Cauley-Stein didn’t play with the team in the Bahamas, the feeling was he would be ready to go when the season started. And he didn’t disappoint. Defensively, he showed the shot blocking ability of Nerlens Noel with the ability to defend all positions like Anthony Davis.
The most striking thing from Willie this past season was the edge he started to play with. From the glare at Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell to The Dunk at Florida to his block and dismissive look vs. Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game to the way he defended Jerian Grant to preserve Kentucky’s victory over Notre Dame, Cauley-Stein became the leader that the Cats needed during their historic season. Even though Kentucky fell short of the ultimate goal, WCS was an integral piece of very good Final Four team.
Willie Cauley-Stein joins former Kentucky stars Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento as the Kings look to make it back to the playoffs in the NBA’s super competitive Western Conference. As CBS’ James Herbert opines, we’ve only seen just a little bit of Cauley-Stein’s skillset as a basketball player: and for opponent’s that’s downright scary. Willie is relentless on the defensive end (remember when Cal was a “point guard” coach?) and his offensive game, while never really needed at Kentucky, is better than most observers think. And if he keeps improving like he did in Lexington, WCS could be an All Star caliber player for the Kings.
So, the Trill is gone from Lexington, but the BBN’s loss is certainly Sacramento’s gain.