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30Q: Will Willie Cauley-Stein Make A Leap?

His rookie season was great, but can he avoid a sophomore slump?

2015 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

It's time once again for our annual series "30Q" in which we answer 30 questions over the course of September as we get ready for the upcoming season.

The Sacramento Kings’ roster, as of September 3rd, 2016, is riddled with mediocrity. A lot of players the Kings signed this offseason would fit under the ‘average at their position’ category in a good season. I don’t mean that as a slight, stars are hard to acquire. It’s even harder when you haven’t made the playoffs in over a decade, and your organization has a bad-but-improving reputation around the league. Willie Cauley-Stein represents one, if not the only, member of the Sacramento Kings’ roster with significant upside coupled with the ability to hit that upside as early as next season.

Skal Labissiere, Georgios Papagiannis, and Malachi Richardson all have upside-until-proven-otherwise, but it would be unfair to rely on a tangible impact from any of those rookies in year one.

As currently constituted, the Kings need so many things to break in their favor in order to compete in the Western Conference next season, and if Willie Cauley-Stein can give the team an elite-level defensive tool for 30+ minutes a night, well, that’d be huge.

I wouldn’t suggest such a thing if it wasn’t so possible. Cauley-Stein was an excellent defender at Kentucky, he was a pretty good defender in a limited role with the Kings last season, and he obviously possesses the raw tools that make ‘elite defensive player’ possible.

Believe it or not, he actually finished with the worst defensive rating on the Kings last season, and most statistical indicators suggest he wasn’t anything more than average defensively. With that being said, defensive rating is more of a ‘team defense’ statistic than you might think, and the Kings played so irresponsibly fast last year, it makes it easy (and convenient!) to just chalk up all the poor defensive numbers on something like the millions of turnovers the Kings made playing too fast, or their poor defensive schemes, or the plethora of other complaints we had about the team last season. Despite the convenience, there is a hint of truth to all of that. Just a hint.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but Willie Cauley-Stein was borderline-bad in Vegas this summer. I’ve heard the excuses, he was trying new things, trying to be more of a scorer, etc. All of that is well and good, and just because I called them excuses doesn’t mean that they don’t have merit, but he wasn’t good, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that his showing in Vegas has me concerned. It wasn’t just the ugly offensive possessions, either. He wasn’t picking up the slack on the glass, or on defense, when those buckets weren’t falling.

The Kings need Willie Cauley-Stein to be really good, right now. This team becomes infinitely more interesting if Willie, under Dave Joerger, plays like the defender he can be. In fact, when the Kings hired Joerger, Cauley-Stein is where my mind went immediately. Joerger is the perfect defensive-minded, players-first coach for Cauley-Stein. This should be a match made in heaven.

For all the (mostly valid) criticism we loft Rajon Rondo’s way for his play last season, he was integral in Cauley-Stein’s offensive production. They really worked together beautifully, and Cauley-Stein is even on record about how Rondo was helping him throughout the season. The Kings may not miss Rondo, but Cauley-Stein probably will.

After seeing Willie in Vegas without a point guard, and with the Kings’ potential playmaking problems this season, it’ll be interesting to see how Willie fairs offensively when no one is looking for him. It’s just something to keep an eye on.

All of this may sound like I’m down on Cauley-Stein, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve wanted this guy on the Kings since he was a freshman in Kentucky. I’ve seen him do things defensively that almost-literally nobody else can do. Nobody. He’s an amazing athlete with amazing defensive instincts. We talk about his ability to switch on to guards all the time, but that isn’t just some cliche thing. He can do it! He does do it! That is such a rare skill set for a player his size. I wouldn’t be begging for a major leap next season if I didn’t think he could actually do it.

Will Willie Cauley-Stein make that leap? I don’t know, but I love what we saw out of him last season, and I cannot see the Kings being competitive if he doesn’t. No pressure.