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Player Grades: Willie Cauley-Stein

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Three years in and our seven footer is still a mystery to many.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Grading anything as subjective as an entire NBA season is always a tough gig. Different people have different goals for an individual as well as different techniques for assessing a seven month long journey. To keep things moderately simple, I will be using the expectations we had heading into the season for each player as the barometer for how well their season went. These grades won’t necessarily tell us where they rank among their fellow NBA players or what their career trajectory may be, but rather it will help assess where we stand with that prospect today compared to where we stood in October.

Player: Willie Cauley-Stein

Grade: C

Reasoning: To start this exercise of reviewing our players, I assigned everyone a grade just to see where each person fell in my mind’s eye without doing any research. On that original list hidden in the vaults of STR headquarters, Willie Cauley-Stein had a big, fat, ugly D- sitting in front of his name. No player, not even George Hill, frustrated and annoyed me more throughout the year. Expecting to use metrics and tape-watching to eviscerate our third year big man, I instead found that my misplaced expectations to start the season, as well as my insistence on using my perception as to what kind of player he should be, rather than what player he has become, caused my opinion to heavily tilt toward the negative, even when he played well.

If he improved in areas in which we had no expectation for him to improve, but also failed to get better in ways we had hope for, is the overall grade not a bit of a wash? The scoring, passing, and interior defense of Willie jumped out quite a bit; whereas his rebounding, perimeter defense, and consistency failed to grow.

Areas of Strength

Dave Joerger’s offensive scheme demands that every player possess the ability to move the ball around the floor. Prior to this season, Willie Cauley-Stein had never showed a penchant for passing the rock, but that skill set did emerge over the past 82 games. Our seven footer showed serious growth in his court vision from his rookie and sophomore seasons:

Pete Maravich 2.0

Season AST% Assists per game Assists per-36 Total Assists
Season AST% Assists per game Assists per-36 Total Assists
2015-2016 3.8 0.6 0.9 37
2016-2017 9.4 1.1 2 80
2017-2018 13.7 2.4 3 172

Willie ranked 12th among all qualified centers in assist percentage (13.7%), and was also 6th among Kings players in that same area, better than Buddy Hield, Garrett Temple, Justin Jackson, Vince Carter, Skal Labissiere, or Kosta Koufos.

Cauley-Stein also showed an ability to score the basketball outside of his usual dunks and layups. His points per game jumped from 8.1 as a sophomore to 12.8 as a third year player, and the way he put the ball in the bucket was much more diverse compared to previous seasons. While not always smooth or necessarily successful, a portfolio of spin moves, hook shots, and mid-range jumpers began to emerge throughout the year. His comments about Kristaps Porzingis notwithstanding, he did prove many doubters wrong regarding his ability to contribute on that end of the floor.

Although we’re in the area of strengths, I think it’s important to point out the drop in efficiency in Willie’s offensive game. His eFG%, FG%, and 2P% were all career-lows, but that’s something to be expected when a player attempts to move his game from dunks and layups to a more diverse set. His numbers didn’t drop precipitously low, and more experience as well as continued workouts in the summer should see those numbers rise again.

Interior and isolation defense were also marks in Willie’s favor for the 2017-2018 campaign. Overall, opponents field goal percentage dropped by 2% (from 47.9% to 45.9%) when guarded by Cauley-Stein this season. That decreases to 3.9% (from 62.8% to 58.9%) when shooting within six feet of the basket.

Solely on post possessions, Willie held opponents to 46.2% shooting from the floor and only committed shooting fouls 3.9% of the time, the 9th fewest in the entire league. As was one of his vaunted skills when entering the league, he also held his own in isolation defense. Cauley-Stein was in the 79th percentile when guarding someone in isolation, only allowing his man to score 0.75 points per possession and shoot 37.1% from the field.

Cauley-Stein’s areas of strengths may not be what we projected they would be three years ago, but several important parts of his game have shown significant growth.

Areas of Opportunity

Rebounding is a skill. As with any talent in life, some are more adept than others at a given task due to their natural advantages, whether they be physical, mental, or emotional. Willie is the embodiment of the underachiever in school who’s smart enough to get by without studying, but never shines due to his refusal to improve on his innate gifts.

Our young, seven foot athletic freak should gobble up rebounds faster than anyone else on the court. Willie can outrun, out-jump, and out-reach almost every center he faces on any given night, but his lack of commitment to improving in that area of his game is a glaring weakness that others exploit regularly.

Cauley-Stein ranked 43rd out of 61 qualifying centers in rebounding percentage over the course of the 2017-2018 season, recording a putrid 14.5%. Sadly, that beats Skal Labissiere’s even more embarrassing 13.2%. There also isn’t a strong trend one way or another between offensive and defensive rebounding: Willie is terrible at both.

One projection for Willie coming out of Kentucky was his versatility on defense. Theoretically, he would grow into the rare sort of unicorn who could switch 1 to 5 on defense. That hasn’t happened. We’ve all seen the slow closeouts, especially at the 3-point line, and Cauley-Stein’s ability to impact opponents decreases as he’s stretched to the perimeter:

Perimeter Issues

Distance DFG% FG% Diff%
Distance DFG% FG% Diff%
0-6 ft 58.9 62.8 -3.9
7-10 ft 53.8 57.8 -4
15 ft - 3P 38.5 37.1 1.4
3 pointers 39.7 35.9 3.8

The final piece of the Cauley-Stein puzzle is his consistency, or lack thereof. The athleticism is there. The height is there. The skills are there. The effort? Meh. It’s not that he never tries or that he’s always tuned out. He’s occasionally the biggest dog on the floor who can’t be stopped, sometimes a middle of the road role player, while other games he looks nothing like an NBA player. It’s maddeningly mysterious:

Inconsistency Defined

Games # of times
Games # of times
< 10 points 25
11 - 16 points 24
17+ points 24
< 5 rebounds 19
6 - 8 rebounds 32
9+ rebounds 22

The scoring is all over the board. He ended the year 3rd on the squad in points per game, and recorded the 3rd most 20 point games of anyone, but also failed to get to the double-digit mark for more than a 3rd of his games played. The rebounding discrepancy tells a depressingly similar story. Dave Joerger and the coaching staff have no idea which player they’ll be getting on any given night.

Final thoughts: I can confidently say that Willie is a better player than he was last year; albeit in areas which are not his proposed natural strengths. It’s not as though we’re debating if he’s an NBA player, a la Ben McLemore, or that he’s been genuinely terrible. Take a step back, glance at his per-36 numbers for a moment, and think back to the 2015 draft.

Per-36

Season FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Season FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2017-18 6.8 13.6 0.502 0.1 0.2 0.25 6.8 13.4 0.506 2.7 4.4 0.619 2.3 6.7 9 3 1.4 1.2 1.9 3.3 16.4

How many would have been thrilled to be given those numbers of the future when drafting Cauley-Stein: 16 points, 9 boards, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block? How much are we influenced by who we thought he should become, instead of who he’s actually developed into? No, he’s not where he should be as a defender or a rebounder, and there are still frustrations with his consistency, but he’s showing flashes of an every night starter or an above-average bench player.

Willie is a player who has unnecessary warts in his game that he may never overcome. He’s never going to be Clint Capela or Tyson Chandler. He has both said and shown time and again that he’s not willing to be a lane protector and rim runner, no matter how much the fan base wants him to submit to that role and get paid a ton of money. Willie Cauley-Stein did not meet my expectations for this past season, but he certainly adjusted them going into next.