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Morning Conversation: Willie Cauley-Stein is turning his season around

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From out of the rotation to playing some of the best basketball of his career, Willie Cauley-Stein’s turnaround has been pretty remarkable.

Kimani Okearah

If you asked me a month ago what the single most disappointing aspect of the Sacramento Kings’ season was thus far, I would have said Willie Cauley-Stein’s lack of development without hesitation. There are bigger, broader disappointing things about the Kings’ 2016-17 campaign, but if asked to pick one specific thing - it was Willie. When we polled Kings fans two weeks ago, 40% of you also picked Willie.

Prior to the season, we were talking about Cauley-Stein as having a pretty good shot at landing a starting role next to DeMarcus Cousins, and not only did we not get that, we barely saw him crack the rotation, and when we did, the results were not very good.

And yet, over the last couple of weeks, Willie Cauley-Stein has seemingly turned his season around completely. How the hell did that happen? Was it as simple as Dave Joerger giving him extended minutes, and letting him play through his mistakes? I honestly don’t know. The speed by which Cauley-Stein went from nearly unplayable to this effective and exciting has actually scared me to a degree. Is his recent play sustainable? I don’t know. I’m almost afraid to talk about it. I don’t want to jinx anything. I can’t remember seeing this kind of dramatic turnaround mid-season. It’s crazy.

It’s definitely worth noting that Cauley-Stein’s improvement has a lot to do with Ty Lawson. We saw Willie play his best basketball last season next to pass-first point guard Rajon Rondo, and Lawson is feeding Willie in a very similar manner. This is speculative on my part, but it looks like Cauley-Stein gets a substantial confidence boost after getting a couple of easy buckets inside, which is exactly what Lawson has been gifting him over the last month. It changes his mentality out there. He loosens up, he looks less robotic, and Cauley-Stein is at his best when he’s thinking less and causing havoc more.

I also don’t want to overplay what Cauley-Stein has done. There are still mistakes being made, particularly defensively where Willie is either late on a rotation, or just doesn’t do enough to alter a shot he should be able to alter with his length, or grab a rebound he should be able to grab, but compared to the Cauley-Stein we saw from October - December, it’s barely the same player.

Number dump incoming:

I’m going to arbitrarily choose January 1st, 2017, as the date to split Cauley-Stein’s numbers this season. He started playing well a week or so into 2017, but it’s an easier cut to just say ‘the new year’ so that is what I’m going with.

2016 Cauley-Stein had a team-worst -11 net rating. 2017 Cauley-Stein is 4th in net rating among what I would consider consistent members of the rotation, coming in right behind Kosta Koufos, Darren Collison, and Ty Lawson at -5.

2016 Cauley-Stein had a putrid 11.2 rebound percentage. 2017 Cauley-Stein has elevated that to 13.9, which puts him right around what Kosta Koufos (14.9 REB %) has been doing on the glass in 2017. Marked improvement!

His 2017 defensive rating (107.9) is better than anyone else in the Kings’ regular rotation.

He had the highest +/- of any player in the Kings’ regular rotation through January 2017 at -0.8 (man we played some bad basketball in early January if that’s our highest).

All of these numbers certainly fit under the small sample size umbrella, and full disclosure aside, I only use +/- when it fits my argument, but all they are really supposed to do for me here is somewhat support what the eye-test has already showed us; Cauley-Stein is playing good basketball right now.

My question this morning is pretty simple, where are you at with Willie Cauley-Stein right now? Has he flipped your opinion over the last month? Has he made Kosta Koufos a little more tradable as the trade deadline approaches? Give me your Willie takes.

At the very least, Cauley-Stein is earning his playing time right now. I’d like to see Joerger extend those minutes from the 12.4 MPG he played in January to something closer to 20 MPG and proceed from there.