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Willie Cauley-Stein remains the Kings biggest mystery

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The young center is consistent in one area: inconsistency

NBA: Utah Jazz at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Cauley-Stein is one of the most unique draft selections in recent history, not because of his talent, but because of his unconventional evolution. Collegiate and international selections rarely fit the exact mold they’re fitted into on their scouting reports, but generally stick to their strengths once they hit the league, assuming they make it at all. Scorers get buckets, playmakers help teammates, and defensive stalwarts become interior and exterior stoppers. Most will add to their repertoire, growing their game to match their counterparts, but the core skillset remains the same. Willie Cauley-Stein has been one of the few exceptions to that rule.

Coming out of Kentucky, Cauley-Stein’s scouting report told the tale of an elite athlete and shot-blocker who needed to add muscle and conditioning to help his subpar rebounding. Theoretically, his foot speed, size, and leaping ability would morph into the most versatile of paint protectors, a seven-footer who could guard the rim and switch to the perimeter on the same possession. He showed some promise of fulfilling that dream during his rookie season, but a very real phobia of shot-blocking developed after he dislocated his pinky in his first year, a crushing blow to a purported defensive anchor, and the flexibility on defense and rebounding never emerged. He’s gone from below-average to near-embarrassing in those categories for a player of his size, age and athleticism:

2018-2019 Metrics

Category Result Percentile
Category Result Percentile
Block Percentage 21.3% 10th
Blocks Per-36 Minutes 0.6 13th
Defensive FG% < 6 Feet -2.2% 26th
Defensive FG% 3-pointer 8.3% 19th
Rebounding Percentage 13.3% 30th

Fans have not quite forgiven Willie for those gaping holes in his play, but have tried to adapt their expectations from what he was supposed to be into what he could become. He’s not a defensive stalwart, nor is he a solid rebounder, but flashes of a competent offensive player have replaced the mirage of a paint protector, first emerging under George Karl and continuing to flourish with Dave Joerger on the sideline. Willie has been used more frequently in the pick-and-roll, has been given the opportunity to expand his passing game, and has even tried out some post moves. The journey hasn’t always been pretty or successful, but he’s continued to develop in those areas.

The fourth year of the Willie Cauley-Stein experiment was supposed to be the newest and the best version of our young center. Prior to opening night, he preached about finally putting in the work and finally figuring out what his role was on the team. And for the first 12 games of the season, he looked and performed exactly like the focused, rim-running center the fan base and the coaching staff wished for:

First 12 Games

Range Points FG% eFG% Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Net Rating
Range Points FG% eFG% Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Net Rating
First 12 Games 17.2 59% 59.70% 7.9 2.3 1.1 0.5 10.8

He ranked as the 9th highest scoring center in the NBA at 17.2 points per game, and accomplished that with an impressive 59.3% from the field, the 4th highest among centers taking more than eight shots per game. He wasn’t blocking shots or rebounding at a particularly strong rate, but the team was much better with him on the floor than off. If he could average an efficient 15 – 17 points per game, many of his flaws could be overlooked. But, as is the case with Cauley-Stein’s career, those dozen great games have been followed by eight snoozers:

Last 8 Games

Range Points FG% eFG% Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Net Rating
Range Points FG% eFG% Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Net Rating
Last 8 Games 10.4 42% 42.20% 8.4 2.1 1 0.5 -1

Most notably, Cauley-Stein’s scoring has plunged by 40%, dropping by almost seven points per game, and his field goal percentage has seen a similar decline, from 59% to 42%, from fourth best to fourth worst among qualified centers. He’s edging away from his strengths by taking more jump-shots, complicating his post-moves, and failing to attack the rim. Willie’s dunks per game have been cut in half, from 2.6 to 1.3, and his free throws attempts are also down, from 4.3 to 2.1. His offensive contributions, the one area he was truly excelling at early in the season, have all tanked despite averaging just one minute less per contest.

Failing to produce at a consistently high level can usually be assigned to one of three reasons. The first, and probably the most common, is that the player simply isn’t very talented compared to the rest of the league (think Kyle Singler). They may be just good enough to hang onto the end of the bench, but there’s not much there. We know that Willie isn’t bad by NBA definitions. Depending on the time of year, he hovers between not great and pretty solid. A player could also be in a slump (think Klay Thompson at the beginning of the year), and that’s been a common justification for Cauley-Stein’s recent struggles, but the notion of a slump can probably be tossed away with the Thanksgiving leftovers. Sure, he played really, really well for 12 games, but that was the absolute best stretch of his career. The peak isn’t the norm.

And so that brings us to the final stop on the spectrum, the genesis of every frustration throughout Willie’s time in Sacramento: inconsistency. He cannot be defined as good or as bad, because he’s occasionally bad, usually average, and sometimes great. It’s maddening to watch as a fan base and impossible to predict for his coaches. And so we have to ask, is Willie Cauley-Stein actually inconsistent in comparison to the rest of the league, or have we let that label stick around because of our disappointment in his development?

The first bit of proof lays in his raw numbers from this season. He’s scored 20+ points six times, 10 – 19 points nine times, and has failed to put up double digits five times. That erratic production is the very essence of inconsistent. We can also measure the normalcy or extremity of Cauley-Stein’s peaks and valleys by comparing them against similar centers. In this case, Alex Len, a player most would declare less valuable than Cauley-Stein, Damontis Sabonis, a younger center drafted a year after Willie, Derrick Favors, a comparable contributor, and Clint Capela, the dream ceiling for our starting center. Each of these big men produce at a different level than Cauley-Stein, some better and some worse, but the goal is to only measure consistency, not talent level.

The method used to calculate their levels of consistency is the standard deviation to the mean. The more frequently a player either goes well above or well below their average points per game, the higher their score (deviation) will be. The closer they stick to their averages, the lower their score. This is not a perfect measurement, as minutes per game directly affect a players per-game averages, but looping in that factor would be a foolhardy task. A player is sometimes pulled early because of a blowout one way or another, or because of poor execution, or to give another player a chance, or due to injury, or for a thousand other reasons. It can be safely assumed that all five individuals experienced all of those situations to a certain extent, and their combined 510 games will make up for most unique circumstances:

Standard Deviation from the Mean

Player 2017-2018 Deviation 2018-2019 Deviation
Player 2017-2018 Deviation 2018-2019 Deviation
Len 4.9 5.1
Capela 5.2 6
Favors 5.3 3.1
Sabonis 5.6 5.2
Cauley-Stein 6.2 7

Willie Cauley-Stein was the most inconsistent player of that group last season and has been the most inconsistent player for the 2019 campaign as well. His highs are really, really high, and his lows are really, really low. The eye-test shows an inconsistent player. The individual, raw numbers show an inconsistent player. The comparison show an inconsistent player. Willie Cauley-Stein is an inconsistent player.

The gravity of that label seems a bit reactionary just 20 games in, but two significant factors press their thumbs on the scale that is the measurement of his production. This isn’t our young center’s first or second year in the league. He’s worn a Sacramento uniform for 234 games and has been unable to find a path toward steady contribution during that time. Watching his performances is akin to striking a flint and steel in a rock quarry: frequent sparks, but nothing catches. The last eight games have been the rule, the first twelve were the exception.

Beyond Willie’s history of ups and downs sits the backdrop that his season must be assessed against: restricted free agency. Two nights before the season began, Dave Joerger had this to say regarding Willie Cauley-Stein’s expectations:

“Consistent rebounder, consistent energy guy, consistent running the floor, those kinds of things,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “Consistent motor — day in, day out — whether it be practice or games. It’s in there. It’s in there. He’s got it in there.”

Dave Joerger used the term consistent four times in two sentences. The Kings know exactly what Willie needs to do to earn their trust this year, and so far, he’s failed to meet those standards. If Cauley-Stein cannot be relied upon to produce on a night-to-night basis, it may be time to move on from the talented big man, especially with Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles waiting in the wings. And if it’s time to move on, that must be done within the next two months, before the trade deadline passes. Dealing Willie Cauley-Stein for a minor draft asset or current contributor is a much better path forward than watching him depart in July with no compensation. Willie Cauley-Stein may be the most tenured Sacramento Kings player on the roster, but his inconsistent play also grants him the title of the biggest mystery.