In his fourth NBA season, Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein has started to come into his own and has primed himself for a big free-agent deal in the process.
When Sacramento Kings drafted Kentucky PF/C Willie Cauley-Stein with the sixth overall pick in 2015, the Kings hoped they’d found a defensive anchor who could also develop a strong offensive game. He played sparingly over his first two seasons, until the team traded away DeMarcus Cousins in 2017.
As soon as Cauley-Stein got an opportunity to play significant minutes, he started to flash some of the potential that made him a lottery-pick in 2015.
In his first full season without Cousins in the fold, he started 58 games (73 played) and he averaged 28 minutes per game. As a result of the bump in playing time, Willie posted career-best marks in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game, but also saw his true shooting percentage drop.
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He also posted a career best box plus/minus (BPM) on the strength of a career-high 1.7 defensive plus/minus. This year, however, Cauley-Stein has become a legitimate building block for the Sacramento Kings.
On the year, Cauley-Stein is averaging 15.4 points*, 8.6 rebounds*, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game on .542/1.000/.500 shooting in 29.1 minutes per game. While his traditional stats are solid, his advanced stats might be even better.
Over the course of 18 games, Cauley-Stein owns a player efficiency rating (PER) of 18.3*, .547 true shooting percentage (TS%), total rebound percentage of 15.0*, 0.5 BPM* and a player-Impact plus/minus (PIPM) of 1.64. That PIPM is second-best on the Sacramento Kings, barely edging out De’Aaron Fox (1.48 PIPM) and behind Nemanja Bjelica (1.90 PIPM), but perhaps more importantly that mark ranks 53rd in the NBA.
More significantly, as it pertains to his free agency, Willie Cauley-Stein has added approximately $5.4 million worth of value to the Kings this season. That number is higher than the value added by stars such as Draymond Green, Gordon Hayward and Russell Westbrook.
Now, nobody is saying Willie is a better player than those listed above, but it does help put things into perspective. Cauley-Stein has been incredible for Sacramento this season and his strong play will likely force the Kings to make a choice this offseason.
How important has Cauley-Stein been to the team’s success?
If Giles’ struggles continue throughout the season, it’s not hard to envision Sacramento paying Cauley-Stein, granted he doesn’t play himself out of their price-range.
Of course, this all depends on how the rest of the season plays out. If the Sacramento Kings continue to play at a .500 level, or even stay in the playoff hunt, it might behoove them to pay Cauley-Stein and trot out a core-four lineup of De’Aaron Fox–Buddy Hield-Bagley-Cauley-Stein for next season. This isn’t without reason either, as almost all of the Sacramento Kings’ most successful lineup combinations feature Cauley-Stein in them.
Thus far, the Sacramento Kings only have two five-man lineups playing at least five minutes per game with at least eight games played this season. Both have a positive plus/minus and both feature Willie Cauley-Stein.
If we change that parameter to at least five games played with at least twenty minutes played on the season, the Kings only have three lines that meet that criteria. All have a positive net-rating and all feature Wille Cauley-Stein.
When it comes to two-man lineups, partner up WCS with De’Aaron Fox or Buddy Hield and both lineups a net-rating of 7.3 or better. For what it’s worth, when WCS and Bagley share the floor they have a -1.0 net-rating, but when Bagley and Giles share the court they post a net-rating of -23.9. In fact, every two-man lineup that features Giles and one of Fox/Hield/Bagley has a negative net-rating.
This isn’t meant as an indictment of Giles, but rather to illustrate how important Willie has been to this team’s success.
A look ahead at free agency
It’s also important to note that Willie Cauley-Stein will hit free agency in one of the more loaded groups in a long time and that includes several centers who could cut into Cauley-Stein’s bargaining power.
Aside from the major free agents in Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker, among others, All-Star level center’s DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Hassan Whiteside and Nikola Vučević.
Whether Cauley-Stein stays in Sacramento or not, however, depends on a few things. First, Cauley-Stein is going to have to keep up his play throughout the season, but let’s say he does. Would Sacramento be willing to offer a contract north of $8 million per year? If they are, would other teams be willing to one-up Sacramento’s offer? Or, might the Kings go in another route and chase a marquee free agent in the offseason?
The 2018-19 season is barely 20 percent over and it’s hard to know if Cauley-Stein can keep up his strong play as the Kings inevitably revert to a .500-level team, but if he does, one this is certain: Willie Cauley-Stein is in line for a big payday this offseason.