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The Fundamentals of Success

Willie Cauley-Stein isn’t meeting expectations.

Kimani Okearah

(Editorial note: This article was written on Friday so it does not include statistics from the games against Milwaukee or Toronto)

17 points on 8/19 shooting, 4 boards, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block with 4 turnovers. No, that’s not a random Rudy Gay stat line from 2015. It’s the entire contribution from Willie Cauley-Stein in 75 minutes played over six games this season. After a rookie year filled with promise and potential, our defensive savant seems to have lost his basketball identity.

Prior to the season’s start, many observers, myself included, expected Mr. Trill to claim the starting role next to Boogie during his sophomore campaign. His defensive prowess and hustle seemed to fit perfectly with Dave Joerger’s plan and personality. Although Sacramento had a glut of big men, Willie falling out of the rotation really wasn’t on anyone’s radar or a point of concern.

Unfortunately, our seven footer has seemingly gone through a major regression. The struggles first showed themselves during the entertaining, yet somewhat meaningless Las Vegas Summer League. While playing against inferior, fringe-NBA competition, Willie put up 7.3 points (26% FG), 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals, and .8 blocks in 23.8 minutes per contest. In post-game interviews Willie revealed that he was trying out some new things and that Coach was attempting to run the offense through him. While that seemed to settle some of the concerns regarding the scoring and horrific shooting percentage, others still questioned his lack of motor, aggression, and competitiveness.

The doldrums of the NBA summer caused the anxiety of Cauley-Stein’s performance to fade into the background as excitement over the new roster additions, the new arena, and our new coach came into focus. Worries over who would fill in for Collison, who would backup the stop-gap, and Rudy’s unhappiness overshadowed the pathetic performance from Vegas.

Now, we’re six games into a long NBA season and the poor play of summer has continued. Each game sees our young Center struggle to rebound, defend poorly, and commit fouls at a concerning rate. Every single statistical measurement has taken a serious dive from the success of last year.

Per Game:

Per 36:


As we can see, the rebounding numbers are pathetic. Although grabbing boards hasn’t always been his forte, the lack of effort on a nightly basis is noticeable. In college, Willie averaged 9.18 rebounds per 36 minutes. Last season, Willie averaged 9 rebounds per 36 minutes. As of this moment, the number has dropped to an abysmal 1.9 rebounds per 36 minutes. Cauley-Stein is the tallest member of the team and he grabs the fewest number of boards:

In fact, Cauley-Stein has the second worst defensive rebounding percentage in the entire NBA (players who have played more than 50 minutes on the season). Only Andrew Harrison has a worse percentage with 3.1% while Willie is currently sitting at a disappointing 3.6%.

The rebounding isn’t the only aspect of Willie’s game to have fallen off of a cliff. Cauley-Stein’s calling card coming into the league was his ability to guard almost any player on a switch and to protect the lane with his rim protection. His offensive rating (the number of points per 100 possessions that the team scores while that individual is on the court) is an acceptable 95.8. Willie isn’t known for his offense, but the defensive rating of 114.8 (the number of points per 100 possessions that the team allows while that individual player is on the court) is discouraging. The rim-running, shot-blocking, hustle player of last year is nowhere to be found.

Solving the Conundrum

How do we get our promising Center back to the player he was last year?

Frankly, this is all on Willie. He needs to play like his NBA career depends on it, because it does. The value that a non-scoring, slim seven footer provides is athleticism, hustle, shot-blocking, and posterizing dunks. The game tape shows too many instances of lazy swipes at a rebound instead of boxing out, too many 4 on 5 defensive plays as Willie lopes down the court at his leisure, and too many examples of playing defense with his hands instead of his feet.

Schemes, coaching changes, and different point guards have no impact on hustle and hard work. No one expects Cauley-Stein to score 15 points per game or to immediately understand the new defensive and offensive plans. What the fans, coaching staff, and teammates do expect is 100% effort, 100% of the time. Until that happens, Willie deserves to ride the pine.