Willie Cauley-Stein goes up for a block last season against Vanderbilt's Dai-Jon Parker. Cauley-Stein is one of the top returning shot blockers in the country.
Usually when a player could have left school to be a first-round draft pick and decides to return to improve his game and his stock, that particular player is the centerpiece for his team the following season. Mitch McGary at Michigan, for instance, is a prime example.
Then there's Kentucky and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Cauley-Stein had the potential to get drafted in the first round following his freshman season, and he decided to come back to get better. But not only does Cauley-Stein figure to be more of a role player than a star as a sophomore, it's not a given that he'll start.
Cauley-Stein's competition for minutes and to be the starter is incoming freshman Dakari Johnson. John Calipari told ESPN.com's Andy Katz earlier this month that Johnson has been a surprise thus far and has been more productive than expected.
"Willie is going to have to work for it," Calipari said.
To understand why Cauley-Stein's starting spot is up for grabs—other than just Johnson's presence—it's worth taking a look at how Cauley-Stein finished his freshman season.
Looking Back at the End of Cauley-Stein's Freshman Season
The final nine games of Kentucky's 2012-13 season was a trial period to see what Cauley-Stein looked like as the starting center.
Cauley-Stein was a source of optimism and frustration for the Wildcats as a freshman. His size, athletic ability and occasional breakout games had to get Big Blue Nation excited about what he could become. The team results with Cauley-Stein on the court brought some skepticism.
Over those final nine games when he no longer had to share minutes or share the paint with Nerlens Noel, Cauley-Stein's performance as a rim protector was not at Noel's level but close. He had 27 blocks and a block percentage of 10.18, which would have ranked 29th in the country over the entire course of the season according to KenPom.com's rankings (subscription). Noel's block percentage for the season was 13.2 percent and ranked 10th.
Cauley-Stein had some banner performances over that time frame. He went for 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting, seven rebounds and three blocks in a win against Vanderbilt. He followed that up with seven points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks in an overtime victory over Missouri. He also had back-to-back double-doubles against Arkansas and Georgia. Those were both losses and he had nine turnovers in those two games.
Noel and Cauley-Stein brought similar attributes to the table, yet the Wildcats were a semi-respectable 17-7 overall and 8-3 in the SEC with Noel, and they went 4-5 over those final nine games without Noel.
Not all of that goes on Cauley-Stein, but Kentucky still had NBA talent (Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin) without Noel and definitely underachieved. (That's not to say UK didn't underachieve before, but the argument could be made that the Wildcats were an NCAA tourney team before Noel's injury.)
Considering that stretch, it is fair to ask: Can Cauley-Stein be part of a winning team, or do his shortcomings make him more valuable in small doses?
How Cauley-Stein Fits With Current Roster
What the Wildcats were lacking last year—leadership, steady point guard play and strong perimeter defenders—they now have.
One big issue for Kentucky's offense last season was the ability to score consistently, and that was not something that Cauley-Stein was going to fix. Cauley-Stein is an opportunistic scorer. He was the best offensive rebounder on the team and he was also a good finisher around the rim when he was set up. According to Hoop-Math.com, 67 percent of Cauley-Stein's baskets at the rim were assisted, the highest clip of any Wildcat.
This was not the ideal offensive player for last year's team because the Wildcats were lacking creators. Archie Goodwin was the best slasher on the team and Goodwin was a poor passer. This season Cauley-Stein could benefit from playing with the Harrison twins, who are good at getting to the paint and better at setting up teammates when they get there than Goodwin.
It could also help Cauley-Stein to play next to Julius Randle in the post. Randle can be the go-to guy while Cauley-Stein can focus on hitting the offensive glass and hanging around the rim looking for lobs. On a team that have plenty have guys who want to score, a big man focused on defense and hustle could fit in well.
The Case For Johnson
Calipari has to decide what strengths he values more in his starting center and which player fits in better with that unit.
Last year's group was missing a big man who thrived playing with his back to the basket, and that is Johnson's strength. He is a prototypical center with better post moves and feel with the ball in his hands than Cauley-Stein.
Who will start at center for Kentucky?
The Wildcats don't really have another player in the mold of Johnson on the roster. Randle is the leading candidate to be the go-to scorer inside, but he's more of a face-up power forward. Johnson's presence on the blocks could give UK's offense more balance.
The other two areas where Johnson could be an upgrade from Cauley-Stein is at the free throw line—Cauley-Stein shot 37.2 percent as a freshman—and in the turnover department. Those two areas could be reasons why Johnson might be a better option down the stretch of close games, or at least Calipari could swap them in and out with Johnson on offense and Cauley-Stein on defense.
Johnson also brings a sense of the unknown. Calipari has a decent idea what he's going to get in Cauley-Stein; Johnson, like the other UK freshmen, has the benefit of a fresh start without the stink of last season tainting his value.
In the end, Calipari's decision may not come down to who is better but rather what he prefers from that position and what fits best with the other starters: an athletic defender (Cauley-Stein) or a traditional back-to-the-basket big man (Johnson).