The center position has changed in the NBA. Before, post players who could average over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game were a premium. The Bulls won six championships without one. The Dallas Mavericks won a championship without one. Miami? Two championships. Needless to say, the role has changed. Now, there are more demands defensively and less demands on offense. This is where Willie Cauley-Stein comes in.
In terms of size, he’s a full 7′ with a 7’2.5″ wingspan, he has an excellent height for the center position. Standing reach hasn’t been determined, but his wingspan is just above average. Just for context, UCLA point guard Kyle Anderson, at 6’9″, has a 7’2.5″ wingspan as well. While Anderson clearly has elite size at his position, Cauley-Stein would be among the elite. Unlike Tyson Chandler, who needed to gain strength to adapt to the NBA’s style of physical play, Cauley-Stein is naturally 240lbs., and has a frame that could withstand another 10-15lbs. of muscle.
Athletically, he’s a tremendous athlete. He runs and jumps like a 6’9″ small forward. He doesn’t lumber down the floor, and gets a surprising amount of points in transition. He jumps well too. He doesn’t need to generate lift from his legs on up, but rather, can jump from his feet on up. This allows him to get good lift with excellent timing for his shotblocking abilities. Team defense is his specialty, especially when he’s the help defender for the swat, but he’s able to do surprising things in terms of man-defense. Not only can he block shots on his assignment, but he can keep up laterally on switched pick-and-roll situations as well. He has excellent physical tools for a starting center in terms of height, wingspan, and strength, but the quickness, footspeed, and vertical ability really top off his NBA potential.
Offensively, there is upside for him. He lacks true touch on the basketball, which is evident by his 47.5% free throw shooting. However, he does a solid job catching difficult passes in the paint and exploding up for powerful finishes. His game is primarily 5′ and in, and he’s able to demonstrate a soft shot from that range, in terms of jump hooks and floaters. He needs to do a better job in terms of reading defenses when he’s in the post, but his game revolves around plays that aren’t made for him. His motor and activity create offensive production off-the-ball in terms of lob dunks, offensive tip-ins, and easy finishes around the hoop. Still, he has a solid shot form which can easily improve at the NBA level.
Defensively, he’s a standout. Not only is he able to switch on pick-and-roll situations and keep up with point guards, but he does a surprising job keeping out of foul trouble in those situations. He can bang players out of position in the post, has the footspeed to go around his assignment to deflect passes, and the base that allows him to jump quickly for well-timed blocked shots. His focus on defense is detrimental in terms of his rebounding. He gives up his position entirely to go for the blocked shot. This allows average ability on the defensive backboard. While he has excellent reach and athletic tools, he gets himself caught out of position. Of course, statistically, this can also be affected by power rebounder Julius Randle beside him as well. Randle makes up for Cauley-Stein’s weaknesses in terms of rebounding, positioning, and base. Cauley-Stein makes up for Randle’s weaknesses in terms of explosiveness defensively above the rim.
Overall, he’s an excellent lottery prospect with plenty of potential. Fans can see some similarity with style of play to DeAndre Jordan, who is even more explosive around the rim. Both players have the size and athletic tools, but need development in terms of shooting touch and rebounding. What they do impacts the game tremendously. They provide impact at a place where most teams lack, in the paint. In this regard, he can be considered a safe pick. DeAndre Jordan, just five years into the league, now averages 10 points, 14 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game on well over 60% from the field. Mike D’Antoni needs athletic guys who can run the floor, but I don’t think he would expect that kind of ability from the center position. Considering that Cauley-Stein improved his A/TO ratio to nearly 1:1, and improved his free throw percentage by 10%, it’s only a matter of time before he becomes an impactful paint player at the NBA level. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll change his hair color to purple and gold.