Willie Cauley-Stein came in as a bit of a mystery man. He was ranked as the fortieth best player in the country, the number nine ranked center and a four star kid according to Rivals. His recruit rankings were a little lower than Kentucky fans were used to in the John Calipari era but he checked in at seven feet tall and was an athletic phenom as he was also a star wide receiver in his home state of Kansas.
WCS, as he became known to fans, came into Kentucky and immediately started drawing praise from coach Cal. He was more polished than at first thought and was able to run up and down the court with an ease and a quickness that is unusual for a player of his size. But he was seen as a project and would get minutes off of the bench in relief for the assumed starter Nerlens Noel.
But Willie played early and often. His size, speed and defensive presence were too much to ignore. He had a couple of early games in which he scored double digits (Lafayette, LIU Brooklyn, Samford) and had a monster second half at arch rival Louisville in a close three point loss to the eventual national champions.
Progress was being made but he suffered a setback with an injury in a home game versus Tennessee. He missed the next four games but was thrust back into the spotlight soon after as Nerlens Noel was lost for the season with a torn ACL at Florida. WCS assumed the starting position at center and saw many ups and downs. Against Tennessee on the road he scored only two points and grabbed only two rebounds.
But he bounced back in the next game with 20 points and seven rebounds in a home win against Vanderbilt. He followed that with another good game in what was thought to be the most important game of the season against Missouri. In that contest he had seven points and twelve rebounds.
Cauley-Stein showed flashes but proved to be immature on and off the court at times. His immaturity on the court was based on his lack of offensive productivity and his immaturity off the court was based on his twitter battles with fans.
But still, his talent is undeniable and his draft stock rose from non-existent at the start of the season to verging on the lottery depending on which draft service one looked at. Willie Cauley-Stein possesses a unique skill set for a seven foot tall player that would transition nicely to the new fast paced, up and down style NBA. But he put his NBA dreams on hold to rectify a failed season and to improve on his game under the tutelage of John Calipari.
Height - 7-0
Weight - 244
Position - Center
Last Year's Statistics - 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists
Willie Cauley-Stein's strengths lie in his length and his athleticism. On defense he is a shot blocking machine. On offense he feasts off of put-back dunks and he flashes an occasional baby jump hook in the lane. He is athletic enough to run the floor with a speed and grace of a wide receiver making him a perfect fit for the Dribble-Drive Offense. With a new point guard running the show, WCS should see an increase in lob passes in a return to the "Lob City" dunks of the 2012 national title year.
There is no question that he can improve on his offensive skills, his free throws in particular. Teams could take advantage of a "Hack-a-Cauley-Stein" game plan in order to slow Kentucky down and force WCS to a one or no point situation from the free throw line. Outside of put-backs and the occasional hook shot, he is limited from an offensive stand point. But with an offseason full of hard work and new pieces around him, Cauley-Stein is set up to take the next step towards becoming an offensive asset instead of a liability.
Cauley-Stein, like fellow sophomore Alex Poythress, is benefitting from summer battles with an incoming freshman. Seven footer Dakari Johnson has been playing against WCS in pick-up games and wants a starting spot. With a year under his belt and preseason expectations through the roof, Cauley-Stein needs to accept the challenge issued by Johnson and prove to himself, his coaches and his teammates that he belongs in the starting center spot.
He should develop into more of an offensive threat and he should see his point averages increase. A big reason for that is the addition of a new point guard in Andrew Harrison and the presence of two other dangerous big men in Julius Randle and Alex Poythress.
His defense was his strength last season and I don't think much will change in that regard. His shot block timing improved as the season went on and I am sure he has been working on his strength and size during the offseason. A bigger frame will allow him to push defenders around and to be a bigger force under the basket.
DeMarcus Cousins gave WCS some words of wisdom; hopefully he takes Boogie's suggestions seriously and develops a bit of a nasty streak. Coach Cal has high expectations for Cauley-Stein as his above quotes illustrate. Cal doesn't throw praise like that around lightly and WCS has the gifts to make him one of the dominant big men in college basketball.
2012/2013 Season Highlights:
In the Next Preview: Julius Randle Brings the Alpha Beast Back to Lexington