DeMarcus Cousins is gone. There's plenty of reasons to be upset; some, like myself, wanted to keep and build around Cousins, and even those who wanted to trade him to rebuild are mortified at how little the Kings got back in return. Vlade Divac and the rest of the Kings brass face legitimate questions about their competency, and Kings fans are left wondering when the franchise will shake the dysfunction that has plagued it for so long.
Regardless, life goes on. Its been ten long years since the franchise made playoffs, but the rebuilding clock has been reset again, so patience is going to be the most important virtue moving forward. There is no choice left now as a Kings fan except to root for the youth on the roster and the coaching staff that develops them. Once again, all for a dream of a better tomorrow.
In particular, there are two players whose development instantly becomes a priority for the franchise. The first is, of course, Buddy Hield, who made up half of the value received in the Cousins trade. Tim had a great piece on Buddy yesterday.
The other is Willie Cauley-Stein. Willie's season began as a mess, casting a shadow on the 2015 sixth overall pick's potential in the league. He struggled to pick up Dave Joerger's defensive scheme, he wasn't providing much offense, his rebounding was atrocious, and he was a fouling machine.
But sometime around mid-January, a lightbulb went off in his head, and he's been terrific off of Joerger's bench ever since.
(stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBAwowy.com)
The improvement is staggering: Cauley-Stein's numbers are up across the board, and dramatically in several aspects. He's scoring more and at a more efficient rate. His foul rate has plummeted. The Kings' defense is outstanding with him on the court. His assist numbers tripled with only a small increase in turnovers. In turn, Joerger has trusted him with more minutes. His play has practically demanded more court time.
Cauley-Stein's potential on the defensive end is through the roof. To start, he's a springy seven footer with shotblocking potential, and an ability to cause havoc in the passing lanes.
But the real secret sauce is his ability to switch out onto the perimeter. Finding a rim protector who can switch out to the perimeter is the holy grail of modern NBA defenses. Switching completely kills pick-and-rolls, the most efficient engine of the modern NBA's offenses, and forces offenses to rely instead on inefficient isolation plays. When the Kings have Cauley-Stein on the court, especially next to a big wing like Anthony Tolliver, Joerger has allowed the Kings to switch more frequently on defense.
To be sure, there is plenty of room for improvement. Cauley-Stein is only 23 and still inexperienced at the NBA level, so there are moments where a lack of focus takes him out of plays he should have snuffed out. Cauley-Stein’s rebounding numbers are not good, probably never will be; he has questionable hands, and lacks that hunger that all great rebounders have. Cauley-Stein also must improve as a rim-protector, as he defends the rim at a 57% clip that's too high; compare that to the league-leading Rudy Gobert at 48%, and similarly athletic DeAndre Jordan at 54%. But again, for Kings fans, the trait to watch for is progress, not immediate results.
As a fun added bonus, Cauley-Stein has shown way more offensive skill than anyone gave him credit for. Cauley-Stein is warming up to the high-post offense, showing a comfort level passing the ball as his teammates read, react, and cut.
He's showing a surprisingly decent faceup game for himself as well. He's very quick and athletic, and can cover short distances in a flash off the dribble. His ballhandling ability is solid in these short spaces.
And, when defenses mismatch him with a smaller player, he's showing an impressive comfort level putting the smaller defenders on his back and finishing over them using his length and athleticism.
To put the cherry on top, defenses can't even hack him to send him to the free throw line. Cauley-Stein's free throw percentage is up to 64.8% overall for the season, and his last 10 games he's shot 81.3% from the free throw line. That kind of touch also bodes well for his ability to develop a midrange jumper down the line in his career.
Now, before anyone goes overboard, nobody is suggesting the Kings should build their offense around Willie. He's still doing this in a very limited role, and defenses are going to scout him out eventually. Things are going to change drastically without Cousins in the lineup and all-of-a-sudden the team relies on Cauley-Stein to produce. But its nice to know that you're defensive anchor isn't a complete zero on the offensive end.
Losing sucks. Kings fans have already had their fair share of it over the last decade. But despite the dark cloud of front office ineptitude hanging over the franchise, rebuilding doesn't have to be with a proper focus. Throwing out wins and losses and focusing on player development can be rewarding in its own right. The Kings are starting to show promising signs of player development this season with Willie Cauley-Stein and Ben McLemore both improving as the season has come along. They have Buddy Hield coming over and ready to take on a bigger offensive role than he had in New Orleans. And they have the three rookies they drafted developing in the background.
Back to square one.