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Cross your fingers, Willie Cauley-Stein is starting to show some improvement

Small sample size disclaimer aside, Willie Cauley-Stein is finally contributing.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The Sacramento Kings have given us plenty of depression fuel over the course of the last decade, but I don’t know if I’ve been disappointed by any single bit of ‘Kings nonsense’ over the last six or so months than Willie Cauley-Stein’s lack of development.

It started in Vegas during summer league, and it’s been a downward spiral for Cauley-Stein since. Until now. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe? Hopefully?

Let’s get one thing clear, I’m rooting for Cauley-Stein’s development. I’m looking for silver linings. I’m looking for statistical evidence. I’m looking for improved play. I’m looking for signs of progression.

I think he’s been much better, if not legitimately helpful, over the last four games. Dave Joerger reintroduced him to the rotation in Brooklyn (a whopping three minutes!) but Cauley-Stein is averaging double-digit minutes since. Joerger has no problem benching any of his role players if he doesn’t like what he sees, so the fact that Cauley-Stein cracked the rotation at all, and appears to be keeping that spot right now, is weak evidence that he’s doing something right.

Outside of Joerger’s stamp of approval, he has looked more engaged over these last four games. Less awkward standing around, more fluid defensive movement, less thinking, more playing, etc, etc, basketball cliches. He’s passing my subjective eye test. He was borderline fantastic in the Kings’ loss to the Knicks on Sunday night to the point where I have to ask, is Willie Cauley-Stein turning a corner?

Small sample size statistics are often times less accurate than the eye-test, but as I’ve mentioned without hesitation in the past, if the numbers support my eye test, I’m going to use them. Take them with as many grains of salt as you’ve got.

Cauley-Stein’s net rating over the last four games is a team-high +10.1. His defensive rating over the last four games is a team-best 87.7. These numbers are so reminiscent of the George Karl era Willie Cauley-Stein numbers - small sample size but positive results that make you interested in seeing more. That is where I’m at with Cauley-Stein. I’m not saying the corner is turned, I’m saying that he’s showing us enough to the point where I’m intrigued.

Under normal circumstances, I would have been frustrated with the lack of playing time for Willie Cauley-Stein this season. The Kings are a bad team, develop the kids, basically. Particularly in Cauley-Stein’s case, because he was an older rookie, and the Kings really need to figure out what he is this season. And yet, Cauley-Stein has been so bad, really dating back to summer league, that I couldn’t justify his minutes. I couldn’t be frustrated with Joerger. Cauley-Stein just wasn’t doing anything.

I don’t think that is the case anymore. I think Cauley-Stein is starting to show some flashes. He’s starting to show some non-box-score impact. He starting to look a little like rookie year Willie. I’d like to see Joerger stick with him a for a little while longer while he’s on this small, small upward trend.

His rebounding has still been atrocious, so it hasn’t been all positive, but in the spirit of accentuating the positives and hiding the weaknesses, Cauley-Stein should not be the only big in the Kings’ frontcourt. Not to beat a dead horse, but this is reason #102 why Kosta Koufos should be on the Kings’ second unit. Cauley-Stein can’t control the paint by himself. Kosta can.

The Kings played Cauley-Stein with DeMarcus Cousins for 20+ minutes in New York, and they performed exceptionally well together. You can call it partial garbage time, but they dragged the Kings back into that game. They had a +29.3 net rating together, controlled the glass thanks to Boogie, and Cauley-Stein looked like a much better offensive and defensive pairing for Cousins than Koufos has ever been. We saw evidence suggesting the same thing under George Karl last season, but I don’t totally fault Joerger for seeing how it would look in his system considering the success he had going big in Memphis.

Cauley-Stein gives Joerger another opportunity to go big with a player that has a brief history of playing well with Cousins. I’d like to see Joerger swap Koufos and Cauley-Stein’s roles entirely, but I’ll settle for more Cauley-Stein minutes to see if this recent stretch of improved play is real.