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2015 NBA Draft Profile: Kentucky Center Willie Cauley-Stein

After a mostly underwhelming sophomore season that ended with an injury in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein has made a fan of one of his biggest critics.

Willie Cauley-Stein defends the paint for Kentucky against Vanderbilt.
Willie Cauley-Stein defends the paint for Kentucky against Vanderbilt.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes you get it wrong. This time last year, I was wrong about NBA prospect Willie Cauley-Stein. Thankfully, both of us got another chance with his return to college basketball for his junior season. If Cauley-Stein is Olowo Candy (as I labeled him last season), then it is time I ate it with a side of crow.

Here is a quick summary of my feelings about Cauley-Stein in the midst of the 2013-14 season:

Cauley-Stein is likely to be an effective NBA role player...but he does not project the capacity to develop enough offensively to be an NBA starter. With nimble feet and active hands for his size, he could develop into a great defensive player...he commits lazy fouls and is prone to simply disappear from games--particularly when the game demands more physicality...he averaged 2 points, 3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks over the previous 6 games--unacceptable for a player of his size, intelligence, and athletic abilitiy. He flashes some decent offensive post moves, yet goes long periods of time without showing any of them...his motor and offensive post skills are uneven at best. Neither deficiency is helped by his horrid free throw shooting (47% presently), which would prevent him from closing games even if his offense improves. This far into his college career, he should be showing more than mere flashes of greatness to be considered a lottery pick.

The three biggest concerns I had about Cauley-Stein a year ago--and his ability to change those perceptions--are why I have most changed my mind: lack of motor, poor on-court intelligence, and horrible free throw shooting. He began to show progress in his energy level and instincts during February and March of last season. In the months after I wrote about him, improvements in his game led me to believe he had grown into a first round talent in a loaded draft due to being more active as a defender and showing a higher skill-level in the offensive post. Unfortunately, an ankle injury early in the NCAA tournament prevented him from showing his progress in the tournament or potential pre-draft workouts. The injury combined with being an excellent student led Cauley-Stein to return to school.

Last season, I viewed Cauley-Stein as a role player, but improvement to his free throw shooting and offensive skill has set him on a path to possibly being a starter. In his three college seasons, he has gone from shooting 37% at the line as a freshman to now shooting 64% as a junior. While he is still a bit of a liability, shooting over 60% from the line in the NBA is enough to keep him from being taken off the floor in late-game situations as some of his defensive contemporaries (see: Drummond, Andre). Not only has his percentages improved, but he also has a much cleaner stroke that should be more easily repeatable as he continues to work.

Cauley-Stein's block numbers have dropped in his junior season both in total and on a per minute basis. Some of the reduction is likely due to the improvement of other players on the team as he has fewer mistakes to erase. The more likely attribution for the deduction is that he has become a smarter defender who chases fewer blocks, takes up more space, and works harder for position on the defensive glass. His defensive rebounding has grown from 6.0 to 7.8 per 40 minutes while his blocks have dropped from 4.8 to 3.0 per 40 minutes. If you put those numbers together, he is ending a similar number of possessions for opponents. When you add in his average of 2.7 steals per 40, Cauley-Stein has become a better overall defender despite blocking fewer shots. He should not be confused with predecessors Nerlens Noel or Anthony Davis whose defensive numbers were better as freshmen than Cauley-Stein's production as a junior, but his ability to defend the perimeter with active hands and quick feet compares to the two defensive stalwarts. In addition to these changes to his game on the defensive end, Cauley-Stein has improved his ability to stay on the court as he is defending better without fouling.

While Cauley-Stein projects to impact games on the defensive end early in his career, he remains a puzzle on the offensive end. He has developed a soft touch on his hook shot and turned it into a legitimate weapon when crossing into the lane from the left block. While he has always been a willing "hockey assist" guy, he now makes plays by passing adeptly out of the low post to find open shooters from multiple angles. His greatest hole at the next level is developing in the high post where he is limited beyond setting a capable screen. With an increase in reliance on bigs being effective in the high post at the NBA level, his weakness in that area harm him far more than his improved assets in the low post. In his game against Texas, Cauley-Stein provides a reel of his best assets and deepest limitations as a prospect:

The video highlights his improved play in the low post including his touch on his running hook. While this is a professional-level move, he will need to develop several more counters to the hook in order to find success against real pros. It is fair to project him doing so given his other improvements. The bigger issue is how the Texas defense is virtually begging him to catch the ball in the high post. Most of his plays from this position result in a moment of indecision followed by weak floaters. Willie continues to struggles when players close his space despite his size. Cauley-Stein expends a lot of energy using his length to go around players--often finishing with moves that take him away from the rim--rather than using his lower body to move toward the basket. This is a common trait among players who struggle at the free throw line. If that is the case for Cauley-Stein, he may embrace taking on more contact as he grows more confidence at the charity stripe. It is just another way in which making free throws is of deeper value than the mere points that are produced.

I currently value Willie Cauley-Stein as a lottery pick unlikely to drop out of that status or to rise into the top 5. He is a gifted defensive player who falls just short of being elite, but his offensive limitations are great enough to question his ability to play at a level independent of being matched with weaker opponents. Due to his character and intelligence mixed with a record of working to get better, he has enough ability to develop into a starting center in the NBA despite his present shortcomings. In a strong center class with younger players who have much greater skill sets on the offensive end and similar defensive potential, Cauley-Stein is a little unlucky to have delayed to this draft. However, teams wanting an earlier contribution and less risk will be eager to get him as a relatively high-floor player certain to find a role in an NBA rotation. Under the right circumstances, he could develop into a defensive anchor who grows beyond his current liabilities on the offensive end.