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Willie Cauley-Stein is Finally Playing to His Strengths

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He may not be Kristaps Porzingis, but that’s okay.

Kimani Okearah

We’re coming up on the anniversary of one of Willie Cauley-Stein’s most memorable postgame interviews.

It was November 11th, 2017 and the Sacramento Kings had just been defeated by the New York Knicks in blowout fashion. Kristaps Porzingis led the game in scoring with 34 points. Cauley-Stein was in the starting lineup for the Kings, but finished with only 5 points and 3 rebounds.

In the postgame press conference, Willie talked about Porzingis, and compared the Latvian’s game to his own.

“Offensively, I gotta get to the point that I’m just going at dudes like him. Guarding him, and then watching his game,” Cauley-Stein said. “I have the same body size, the same skill-level, just transfer it over to a game now.

The comments fell on frustrated ears for many Kings fans. While both are seven-footers from the same rookie class (selected just a couple picks away from each other), that is pretty much where the similarities between the two players end.

Porzingis is one-of-a-kind. There’s a reason his nickname is “the unicorn”. His proficiency in perimeter play and outside shooting are unheard of for a player who stands 7’3”. He’s also been a fantastic rim protector for the Knicks since day one.

Willie is not that type of player, but has advantages over Porzingis in other areas. Cauley-Stein has a much stronger frame and is a more athletic leaper. He has also put up better assists and steals numbers than KP throughout their young careers.

The fear of many Kings fans is that Cauley-Stein just isn’t able to recognize where his strengths lie, and where they don’t. Sacramento would be happy to watch him do what he does best — go up for lobs and finish explosive dunks at the rim. But that has not seemed like it’s enough for Willie.

Until now.

Willie Cauey-Stein is not a modern big, but he has tried to play like one in the past couple of seasons. Suddenly, however, his often forced and awkward mid-range game has disappeared almost completely.

Cauley-Stein’s Shot Selection

Season At Rim Short Midrange Long Midrange
Season At Rim Short Midrange Long Midrange
2016-17 56% 30% 14%
2017-18 56% 27% 16%
2018-19 79% 19% 2%
Per cleaningtheglass.com

Though it’s a very small sample size, Willie’s game is thriving without the fancy high-post moves and jump shooting.

It’s important to note that he’s not converting at a higher percentage at the rim (65% this season and the last), he’s just taking more of his shots from that area of the court. And just look at how it’s affected his efficiency:

Cauley-Stein’s Efficiency

Season eFG% TS%
Season eFG% TS%
2016-17 0.530 0.558
2017-18 0.504 0.529
2018-19 0.625 0.624
Per basketball-reference.com

Many players on the Sacramento Kings are scoring more than usual. Offense in Sacramento — and around the league — is up massively this season. But most of the higher numbers for the Kings have come from inflated attempt rates and outlier efficiency.

That’s not the story with Cauley-Stein. His change has come almost entirely from shot selection.

The question now becomes if he can keep making the right decisions — if he can keep passing up long twos for a chance at a higher percentage shot.

When pondering the question, it’s hard not to think back to a more recent press conference.

“I’m ready to get paid.”

That’s what he said this offseason. And if Willie Cauley-Stein can stick to what he’s best at, he just might get what he wants.