If you catch him in a postgame interview or maybe just lounging around campus, chances are that you will see Willie Cauley-Stein wearing a fashionable fedora, cleverly placed askew atop of his burgeoning afro. His ensemble may or may not also include a pair of glasses hanging dangerously on the tip of his nose, a button-up plaid red and black plaid shirt, skinny jeans, and a pair of Chuck Taylor All Star low-tops on his feet. Oh, and one can't miss the tattoo on his neck that reads "Hakuna Matata"-translated as "No Worries", thanks to the Lion King- a new addition in the off-season.
If it wasn't for his height, one might lump him in with the numerous and nameless hipsters that can be spotted at the local (not Starbucks) coffee shop reading Salinger or commenting on the Jazz playing over the sound system.
And this is what sets him apart from your average college basketball player. Off the court he has a nonchalant, slightly dismissive attitude. But, and I'm paraphrasing the great poet Ice Cube, on the court he is trouble as he might mess around and get a triple double. He trades the fedora in for a headband; the plaid shirt for a jersey. The Miles Davis cool dude turns into a stat stuffing machine once the ball is tipped.
The return of WCS for his sophomore year is proving vital for this young Kentucky team. He is bringing energy and a passion that is sometimes lacking when it comes to a few of the freshmen. In games this season, Willie has provided the spark on both sides of the court to steady his team and push them towards victory. No spark more important than his latest effort against the Providence Friars in which he scored 15 points to go along with eight rebounds and nine blocks.
We saw shades of this last season in games against Louisville, Missouri and at home against Florida; but he couldn't do it on a continuous basis, and thus his return rather than a jump to the pros.
Of course he is being compared to his two predecessors, Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. Davis was a shot blocking savant that gradually added an offensive game as the season progressed. Noel was a defensive virtuoso that specialized in blocking shots and stealing the ball, something that most centers are not expected to do. Both players acted as erasers in the middle for their respective teams.
Cauley-Stein is an interesting mixture of both. He doesn't have the pogo-like jumping ability of Noel, but he possesses his lateral quickness, which allows him to be a threat to steal the ball. His offensive game may not be evolving as fast as Davis' did, but he is crafting one slowly but surely.
This season, WCS is averaging 9.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, 1.3 assists, and 1.3 steals in 25.6 minutes per game. All of those numbers are up from last season and they will continue to rise.
While his freshmen teammates are continuing to learn the defense and how to adjust to the college game, Cauley-Stein is the help near the rim that will be there if one of the perimeter players gets beat. That's what made Noel and Davis so special; they provided the safety valve.
Cauley-Stein almost tied Nerlens Noel's epic twelve block game with one of his own against Providence, blocking an impressive nine shot attempts. Not many people made as big of a deal out of it; granted, Noel did it while hampered with four fouls in the last eight minutes of the game, but it was just as impressive as when Willie did it.
If he continues to improve, he will make Kentucky an extremely difficult team to score against; and he may get that extremely rare and elusive triple-double, feat that neither Noel nor Davis were able to accomplish.
The importance of Willie Cauley-Stein cannot be underestimated. A radio talk show host in Louisville (go figure) said that Cauley-Stein was awful and a seven foot waste of space. If what Willie is doing is awful then I'd love to know his definition of the word. But one must consider the source. Maybe it was fear talking.