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Big| 7’1 | 240 | Kentucky
Projected: Mid Lottery
Best Case: Tyson Chandler
Most Likely: Larry Sanders
Worst Case: Chris Andersen
Has there been a prospect in recent memory that is both the premier big man defender in his draft and also one of the top few wing defenders? That’s the type of versatility Willie Cauley-Stein brings – it’s no exaggeration to say he will be one of the most mobile and agile 7 footers the league has ever seen. He’s likely to be taken in the top 10 of a strong draft class while having only rudimentary offensive skills. Probably the most unique prospect in a draft full of unconventional talents.
Over the course of Cauley-Stein’s Kentucky career, he’s had the opportunity to show the full range of his defensive talents. His first year he ceded primary rim protection responsibilities to Nerlens Noel, working as a sub that could replicate some of what Noel provided but also helping blow up offenses when they were paired together. As a sophmore, he was the starting center and primary rim protector on a team that initially disappointed before making a run all the way to the title game of the NCAA tournament. That season saw Cauley-Stein post the best block percentage of any big conference player in the country. Finally as a junior he once again ceded the primary rim protector job for a more varied role, this time allowing the less mobile Karl Towns to stay home while he roamed. This progression and willingness to play any role serves to show that Cauley-Stein will likely find a way to be an elite defender no matter where he ends up, what position he’s played at or who he plays with.
Offense is where Cauley-Stein has most struggled to adjust since turfing a college football career for a shot at the NBA, but there are promising signs here too. His shot has improved at a steady rate through his time at Kentucky – his free throw accuracy jumped from 37% as a freshman to 62% as a junior and he hit 50% of his mid-range jumpers this past season (taking a little less than one per game). I don’t think we’re looking at the next Serge Ibaka, stretching the floor on one end and swatting shots on the other, but if he can hit a 15 footer at a decent clip it opens up positional flexibility that works well with his defensive versatility. Expecting more than strong finishing at the rim, put-backs and the odd jumper from Cauley-Stein in his early years in the NBA would be foolish, but players like Tyson Chandler have shown that offensive effectiveness is possible even with those limitations.
The team drafting Cauley-Stein will have to be aware of some difficulties he could face on his development arc. Much like Larry Sanders had, there are questions about Cauley-Stein’s passion for the game. His first choice sport was american football right up until his senior year at high school and there is a feeling the transition to basketball was for prudential reasons rather than personal ones. This late switch also shows through in Cauley-Stein’s consistency, feel for the game and overall polish. Many of the things he does well come on the back of his insane physical gifts and incredible instincts. Moving into a league full of great athletes who know the game inside and out could make for a rough start. He also has the same question marks over his defensive rebounding ability that Andre Drummond did coming out of UConn, however he doesn’t have the bulk to allay those fears like Dre did. In addition, there is more evidence to indict his weakness on the defensive boards, given the three season sample size. Indeed, his productivity across the board hasn’t improved like you might expect for a lottery bound upperclassman. Showing off different skills season to season is great but you’d hope for that to lead a more effective on-court product.
If his ceiling is as a defensive chameleon with limitations offensively and on the boards, he’ll remain a valuable NBA player but perhaps not the potential star some of the players being drafted around him might be. However, if a franchise willing to stick out some rough patches and work with his weaknesses, Cauley-Stein could reward them with the type of defensive presence Draymond Green provided the Warriors this season, but in a faster, more agile 7 foot tall package. That’d be no small feat and certainly worth the cost of a top 10 pick.