The process of becoming known as more than just a defensive player is grinding along for Willie Cauley-Stein.
The Kings’ center, in his second season, is being asked to expand his game, and it’s something he’s embracing. He’s not abandoning his defensive roots, just trying to become a player who draws attention on both ends of the floor.
“Every day I get a little more confident at running that spot and that’s what I’m working at now,” Cauley-Stein said. “Every day I feel a little bit better and that’s all I can do. Eventually I think it’s going to start clicking where I’m not thinking about shooting no more, I’m just shooting. I do this every single day and when it starts clicking, then it’s going to be powerful for me.”
Cauley-Stein made his first start of the preseason Saturday when the Kings defeated the Washington Wizards 124-119 at Rupp Arena at the University of Kentucky.
Cauley-Stein came into Saturday off his most productive preseason game. He had 12 points and four rebounds in 25 minutes in the Kings’ win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Las Vegas. He followed that up with 12 points, five assists and four steals against the Wizards.
Cauley-Stein averaged seven points and 5.3 rebounds in 66 games last season. A broken finger last December slowed his progress as former coach George Karl was beginning to say he was making strides as a rookie.
But there were many frustrating moments. Drafted for his defensive prowess, there were still plenty of games where Cauley-Stein played little on a team that struggled to defend.
Until late in the season when the Kings began featuring young players with an eye toward this season, Cauley-Stein’s role on offense was minimal. Forget having a play run for him, Cauley-Stein’s job was to get the rebound and continue to work to become the elite defender he was drafted to be.
It will not be that simple this season.
It was made clear before summer league that Dave Joerger and his coaching staff wanted more from Cauley-Stein on offense. Being just a defender would not be enough.
Cauley-Stein would need to be a threat on offense to function on the floor. He needed to be able to set up teammates with passes out of the high post or be a threat to score.
With extra responsibility heaped on him, Cauley-Stein looked uncomfortable. He struggled in summer league, which is not a good look for a second-year player going against a lot of young players, many of whom will not make NBA rosters.
Still, Cauley-Stein said his continued work on his skills in the offseason made him better equipped to deal with the expanded role. That way he wouldn’t be on the court thinking too much. Instead, he’d just be playing freely.
The support of the Kings has helped, too.
“I think our coaches and my teammates are pushing me to make those plays, pushing me to make those mistakes,” Cauley-Stein said. “And I learn from that. When you’ve got that in the back of your head, (it helps) that you’re not going to get in trouble for making a mistake, doing something aggressive.”
But that doesn’t mean Cauley-Stein can forget why the Kings drafted him. Cauley-Stein showed he can be a versatile force defensively on Saturday by switching to defend Wizards All-Star guard John Wall, or helping to protect the rim and block a shot by Kelly Oubre Jr.
Joerger is still preaches defense above anything, so even if there are hiccups on offense, Cauley-Stein can prove his worth by defending.
Cauley-Stein said he’ll always be a defender.
“It just comes so natural,” Cauley-Stein said. “If I ever got away from that then I’m probably not playing hoops no more. That’s what got me here.”
Said Joerger: “He knows what he is. If he stays within that, we’re going to put him in those positions to be a rim runner and a diver and a lob guy. He can be effective in those situations.”