Should Willie Cauley-Stein be the Kings’ Starting Power Forward?


With the sixth pick in the 2015 NBA draft, the Sacramento Kings selected Willie Cauley-Stein, from the University of Kentucky. Cauley-Stein comes into the league with a reputation as a defensive virtuoso, capable of guarding every position. While he isn’t at that point developmentally quite yet, nothing the rookie has done so far has disproven the idea that he’ll be one of the top defensive players in the NBA for years to come.

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Cauley-Stein’s performance in Summer League showed off startlingly advanced defensive intuition and freakish athleticism, both of which will go a long way in ensuring success in the Association for WCS. His defensive rotations are far sharper than the average NBA rookie, and his defensive versatility is almost unheard of in the NBA.

It’s unsurprisingly hard to find a guy that really can guard all five positions. He’s a highlight-reel shotblocker as well, a trait that was hard to miss in his Summer League performance.

While Cauley-Stein is almost unimpeachable defensively, it’s hard to say the same for his offensive game. At Kentucky, number one draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns shouldered the bulk of the offensive load, freeing up Cauley-Stein to focus most of his efforts to the defensive end.

In the NBA, it won’t be that easy. Sure, Demarcus Cousins will be a step up offensively as a counterpart in the post, but Cauley-Stein won’t be going up against second-string SEC big men anymore. Offense in the NBA is demanding, and Cauley-Stein is going to have to prove he can handle it in order to start.

In Summer League, Cauley-Stein showed off some skills that suggest that he may in fact be up to the task. Cauley-Stein, in what was admittedly a small sample-size, played well around the basket with some hooks and drop steps that will translate well to the NBA.

He took only 37 shots, but many of those shots looked pretty good. Cauley-Stein is also capable of knocking down a ten-foot jumpshot, although that particular ability didn’t see much of the light in Las Vegas.

Luckily for Cauley-Stein, and the Kings, there won’t be too much of a demand on whoever plays power forward this year. Cousins, as always stands tall as the dominant offensive force on the Kings, and Rudy Gay at small forward carries around some gravitational heft on offense as well.

Really, the Kings’ power forward spot is almost perfect for Cauley-Stein this year. He can come in and develop his offensive game with little pressure to produce in that area, and he can wreak havoc defensively, an ability that has been sorely missed in past Kings teams.

The real question is whether or not George Karl sees it the same way. Karl has a reputation for not starting rookies, and he’s suggested that Rudy Gay may see minutes at power forward. Vlade Divac also picked up veteran big man Kosta Koufos in free agency this offseason, and Karl may lean towards the established Koufos over the unproven Cauley-Stein.

Doing so would be a mistake. Starting Gay at power forward would throw the starting lineup into flux. Omri Cassipi or Ben McLemore could play small forward, but neither option would be optimal for the Kings. Cassipi, while a very good bench option, is not a starting-caliber player, and McLemore is small for the position. Putting Kosta Koufos in at power forward would be an offensive catastrophe, especially down low, where Cousins and Koufos would only interfere with one another.

Starting Willie Cauley-Stein at power forward is the right thing to do for the Kings. He’s offensively raw, but with players like Cousins and Gay in the lineup, it’s not a bad thing to have a player that can take a backseat offensively. Defensively, Cauley-Stein can step in on Day 1 and contribute, both as a shot-blocker and a man defender. It’s George Karl’s call, but Cauley-Stein is the right decision.

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