It's a sort of fascinating phenomenon, and a good indication of the kind of offseason Sacramento has had, that drafting Willie Cauley-Stein seems like maybe the 5th most interesting action the Kings took this summer. It's particularly fascinating given that the last few years have been defined in part by the Kings and the fan-base putting a perhaps disproportionate amount of expectational pressure, I don't think ever deliberately, on incoming lottery picks. It is that much more fascinating when you consider the fact that this may be the first Kings' lottery pick since, well, DeMarcus Cousins, to actually deserve the pressure of expectations.
We talk a lot about how drafts almost always make sense 5 years, 2 years, Hell even the year after. The Kings are a recent and unfortunate study in that. From the obvious reaches, Jimmer, to the "We aren't really sure his skillset can translate professionally, but if our people are taking him 5th they know better than we do right?" reaches of a Thomas Robinson. Any team is their own worst enemy come the draft. Good teams draft duds. Bad teams draft studs. Look no further than Golden State's 3-year run of Steph-Ekpe Udoh-Klay. You'd be tempted to play the what if of Greg Monroe over Udoh if the Dubs weren't our reigning champs. But the Kings have chronically talked themselves into the wrong players (Jimmer) and out of the right ones (Curry, Lillard). Which is kind of an issue when you're supposed to be rebuilding through that process.
There is perhaps a fair question here of how much franchise funk potentially unfairly lowers a prospect's value. No sooner did Sacramento trade Stauskas(?), a laughing stock of a pick outside of Sacramento for 11 of 12 mos, then suddenly Stauskas was a player with "real value" Sacramento was "dumping." And this was in the context of him getting shipped to the Sixers, not exactly a place where personnel is held in the highest of esteem.
In any case the Kings were presented with a similar scenario in the 2015 draft. Cauley-Stein was more or less preordained to this roster, slotted to Sacramento seemingly from the first Chad Ford 2015 mock. But familiarity breeds boredom. And Cauley-Stein suffered from a surfeit of familiarity to even the most casual of non-King focused college basketball fans. He was as integral to Kentucky's run as anyone. A player that had clearly matured physically and mentally the last 3 years with a nearly-unblemished season as reflection of that growth. And consequently the narrative changes. Murmurs manifest. And Chris Webber is calling you out in the national media for being the poorest of poor facsimiles to DeAndre Jordan, a player most of us agree isn't quite the whole of the sum of his parts anyway. Scrutiny is the natural byproduct of excess exposure. And in the modern world of college basketball few things heighten scrutiny quite like lingering on a Calipari roster.
It made sense that Cauley-Stein would be the kind of player the draft process punishes. In the same way it makes sense that it's the process that rewards Emanuel Muiday. The draft process after all has almost nothing to do with basketball and almost everything to do with process. What we hope as fans is that our management is sober enough to avoid the incumbent intoxication of the process. In drafting Cauley-Stein management exhibited a kind of restraint they would spend most of the summer otherwise being criticized for lacking.
Let's ignore momentarily the degree to which Cauley-Stein's skillset, even in its current, rawest incarnation, dots and crosses most of the necessary I's and T's of this roster's needs and focus on the reality that that skillset is one of the 3 best in this draft. The speed. The athleticism. The rebounding. The defensive rotating. Cauley-Stein is so good at so many things everyone had to fixate on the one thing he wasn't. Granted shooting the basketball is very important in a game whose fundamental tenet is shooting a basketball but Christ look at who we're talking about. Dude was often the best player on the best team in the country for all but one Saturday in April. The shooting can come. But it doesn't have to. The concerns about a clogging frontcourt are fair. On the other hand it's kind of nice to finally have enough talent in the frontcourt that it clogging is an actual risk it runs.
The other knock on Cauley-Stein has been his age. Because prospect evaluation happens in such a world now that your potential exists in inverse to age and collegiate success. If you underperformed in your college career it is generally assumed your potential remains virginally untapped. If you exceed expectations the assumption often is we've seen your ceiling at 19. This always fascinated me in the Favors vs. Cousins run-up in 2010. Cousins was effectively punished for having the more successful season. Favors under-performance attributed, not so much to him maybe not quite having Cousins' ability, and instead to youth (keep in mind we're talking about two one and done's) and selfish guard play. Cauley-Stein is not a one and done. But he's also not done. All he needs is for that Kentucky skillset to translate and then sophisticate. That's it. There is no Rubicon for him to cross from notion to actualization. He is actualized. In the universe of the NBA this is his great strength. In the universe of the NBA draft it is his great weakness.
He has a real shot at rookie of the year. Which makes sense given his age and, comparative, athletic maturity. This is exciting. But it is more exciting when you consider just how far he still has to, and can, go. For all the understandable attention paid to the summer's free agency signings Cauley Stein may end up being the most important personnel decision made. For the sake of the franchise's future he almost has to be.