Willie Cauley-Stein is following the blueprint.
It's a blueprint designed to benefit prospects like him—guys who return to school in need of a boost in draft stock.
Following last year's disappointing season for the Wildcats, Cauley-Stein had the option of entering the draft as a likely first-round pick. It wasn't because he'd had such a standout season. Just take a look at the guy. At 7'0' with a 7'2'' wingspan and 240-pound frame, Cauley-Stein packs a devastating punch of size, strength, length and athleticism.
But despite his eye-opening physical tools, the jury was still out on him as a basketball player. His skill set was, and currently remains extremely raw and limited. Not only did scouts deem Cauley-Stein unready for NBA play, but many questioned just how promising of a prospect he ultimately was.
I'm not sure that's a question anymore, as Cauley-Stein has emerged as Kentucky's most productive two-way player this season.
Despite the 82-77 loss to North Carolina, he added five more blocks and 12 more boards while changing multiple shots on the defensive end.
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His offensive game still lacks substantial polish, as he's not really an option to feed in the post. But despite how limited he is with the ball in his hands, it's Cauley-Stein's ability to impact a game without it that drives his NBA appeal.
His interior activity level has been tremendous, both as a rim protector, rebounder and finisher.
Coming into the North Carolina game, Cauley-Stein had totaled 28 blocks over his previous four contests. He swatted five more shots against the Tar Heels, working both as an on-ball defender and off-ball protector.
With Cauley-Stein lurking, no shot around the rim is safe:
He's also doing a better job of contesting shots while defending the ball. With excellent foot speed, Cauley-Stein is able to guard away from the basket, a place where most big men are defensively vulnerable.
Watch how he gets a piece of his man's fadeaway in the post, one of the tougher shots to block:
Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal notes how Cauley-Stein grew 10 inches since eighth grade and played plenty of guard before coming to Kentucky. He's managed to maintain his lateral quickness—only now he's got the body of an NBA center.
But offensively, he still has to rely on his size, athleticism and coordination to do all his work.
"The offense just feeds off your defense," Cauley-Stein told the Associated Press (h/t WCPO.com). If you're playing extremely hard on defense, then the offense is just going to come easier for you."
Given his standout physical tools, Cauley-Stein turns 50-50 balls off the rim into 60-40 balls in his favor. He's a constant threat for offensive rebounds, tap-backs or tip-ins, and ultimately raises his offense's margin for error by extending plays or converting second-chance opportunities.
There's no secret he's not much of scorer. But neither was Steven Adams, who went No. 12 in the 2013 draft and is now playing solid minutes for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Guys like Adams and Cauley-Stein aren't out there to create offense—they're there to finish it.
When you're 7'0'' and can fly, you're going to give your guards a can't-miss, high-percentage target above the rim.
So far on the year, Cauley-Stein is averaging 9.1 points, 7.7 boards and more than four blocks a game as Kentucky's anchor in the middle. He's been a whole lot more productive by putting his physical tools to use and maximizing the natural talent he's been given.
Cauley-Stein hasn't improved much from an offensive standpoint, but his timing, confidence and feel for the game are now on a whole new level. Even without a go-to move, he's figuring out how to change a game.
At this time last year, you weren't sure if Cauley-Stein was a basketball prospect or simply a good-looking athlete. Now, it's pretty clear he's got a bright future as an interior terror for an NBA's front line.
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