The NBA draft has been a veritable crapshoot for the Sacramento Kings over the last 10 years, with an emphasis on crap. Drafting players like Jimmer Fredette and Thomas Robinson over guys like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard have really hurt this franchise over the long term.
Willie Cauley-Stein is hoping to change that. The first draft pick of GM Vlade Divac's front office career, Cauley-Stein hasn't yet achieved the same recognition as some of his fellow rookies from this year's excellent class, but that's not an indictment of his play. He's not a player who accumulates stats or scores a ton of points. He's a workhorse, a guy who will do all the little things that make the team better even if doesn't show up in the final box score. That's incredibly rare for most NBA players, not just rookies.
DeMarcus Cousins likely played some factor in the Kings' decision to take Cauley-Stein. Sacramento has been searching for a frontcourt partner for Cousins for years, and Cauley-Stein fits the mold in every way aside from an ability to space the floor. He plays defense and can guard multiple positions, he protects the rim, and he doesn't need the ball much on offense aside from attacking the basket and running in transition. While his fit next to Cousins is unmistakable, these are all skills that translate very well into today's modern NBA, with or without Cousins (which is a path that the Kings might take in the next couple years). How many big men in the league can block a shot on one end and then be the first person down the court on the other end to throw down an alley-oop?
Of late, Cauley-Stein's minutes have drastically diminished. While he averaged about 21 minutes a game in January and February, that number has dropped to just 11 minutes a game in March. He also lost his starting spot after the All-Star break to Quincy Acy.
Cauley-Stein is clearly frustrated with his lack of playing time and allowed his frustration to boil over a little bit after yesterday's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Coach Karl, for his part, indicated after the game that the minutes had more to do with matchups and pace of play than an indictment of Willie's play and that Willie would be seeing much more time over the final 20 games of the season.
It's not all sunshine and roses with Willie's game of course. Offensively, he's still limited aside from right around the basket, and defensively, he's not making as much of an impact as you'd think. In fact, according to basketball-reference, the Kings are actually better defensively with Willie off the court, although that number is much better when he's playing with the starters instead of the bench.
The good news is that Willie has proven to be a very hard worker and wants to expand his game. We've already seen him hit a few short jumpers with some success this year. During the time he spent injured with a dislocated finger on his right hand, he spent time with the coaching staff working on post-moves with his left hand.
Willie will never be the face of a franchise, and that's ok. But he might just be the most important player on the Sacramento Kings when it comes to discussing the future, even including DeMarcus Cousins. Properly developed, Cauley-Stein could become the type of player who changes a game simply by being on the floor. I can't wait to see what the future holds for him.