In the first Sacramento Kings game following the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans, a fellow Kentucky product stepped into the center spot off the bench and showed he may be ready to fill some of the void left in Boogie's absence.
Willie Cauley-Stein scored a career-high 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds in 35 minutes of action in a 116-100 win over the Denver Nuggets Thursday. He was active on defense (what he’s known for), confident in his shot and attacked the basket on offense, showing some impressive footwork at times.
With new additions Tyreke Evans and Buddy Hield logging minutes in the rotation and the previous playbook centered around Cousins out the window, head coach Dave Joerger kept things simple. Cauley-Stein said he flourished because of this and also because he wasn’t worried about his minutes, knowing Joerger needed him to step up. He labeled it as being “free” and that being free will “unlock things that people haven’t seen.”
Cauley-Stein has had an up-and-down tenure in the NBA so far behind Cousins in the rotation, showing flashes of his potential at times and then looking like he’s lacking energy and confidence other times. So should fans expect this type of energy out of him every game? He knows they will, and he has confidence in himself.
“I’m sure they’re going to expect it. I’m going to play like that for hopefully the rest of my career,” Cauley-Stein said. “Just playing with that intensity and that aggressiveness is where it’s at ... A lot of it depends on my teammates and how they set me up to win or fail. I don’t handle the ball so I have to depend on my guards and my other teammates delivering the ball to me in spots where they know I can score.”
His team tallied 26 total assists Thursday and Cauley-Stein said a free-flowing offense will be best not just for him, but also for his teammates.
“Super free flowing, simple, simple concepts, but with the guys we’ve got the simple concepts are going to work. If you execute them they’re going to work,” Cauley-Stein said. “With the guys we’ve got you’ve got to want to play fast and in control. The more we play with each other the more control we’ll get. Playing fast and getting up and getting in people and really being tenacious on defense, running our offense – it takes a toll on people so I think that’s got to be our identity, playing fast and under control.”
While the offensive production was a welcome sight, it seems as though Joerger will be looking to Cauley-Stein to rebound, something he hasn't excelled at (he's averaging only 2.8 rebounds per game so far this season).
“The thing for Willie that I have always said is to go and be an energy guy who can rebound outside of your area," Joerger said after the Nuggets game. "He went and got rebounds tonight that were at 12 and 13 feet over here, and we need that and that’s good for us and it starts our break.”
Cauley-Stein, who calls Cousins his "big bro", also had this to say last night.
“This game’s not loyal … if you don’t go take it then somebody else is. There’s no loyalty in this game and you’ve got to do it for you,” Cauley-Stein said.