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New York Knicks, Willie Cauley-Stein a Match Made for Success in 2015 NBA Draft

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2015

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At a time when the NBA is being overrun by draft-day rumors, the New York Knicks' purported interest in Willie Cauley-Stein makes sense enough to be viewed as unassailable fact.

Reality has long since set in for these Knicks as they slink deeper and deeper into a selection process teeming with consequence.

Slotted at No. 4, they desperately need to hit on their pick. Working off a franchise-worst season, they have no first-rounder to speak of in 2016. This is the best chance they'll get to land a franchise cornerstone without incurring tangible collateral damage.

But because they've slipped to No. 4, the most coveted prospects are no longer in play. Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns won't make it past No. 2. There's a strong chance, if not an ironclad inevitability, both Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell will be gone as well.

Those names are now being replaced by Duke's Justise Winslow. Latvia's Kristaps Porzingis. Former high school sensation Emmanuel Mudiay.

And Cauley-Stein.

Chad Ford of ESPN.com first mentioned Cauley-Stein, a teammate of Towns' at Kentucky, as a viable possibility for New York at No. 4. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated has since said the Knicks are immensely intrigued by four different prospects, one of them being Cauley-Stein.

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Bleacher Report draft deity Jonathan Wasserman even has the Knicks pulling the trigger on Cauley-Stein at No. 4 in his latest mock.

The jury is still out on what New York will actually do, of course. A lot can change between now and the June 25 extravaganza, and the Knicks are nothing if not rumor-mill fixtures.

Barely considered a top-five talent before now, Cauley-Stein is also new to the mix, his connection to the Knicks a derivative of a meteoric rise up draft boards, his stock one that could reverse course on a whim in this speculation-slopped climate.

Still, with no consensus pick at No. 4, and with the Knicks in need of an interior presence not named Cole Aldrich, Cauley-Stein appears to be very much in play. And while his inclusion in this conversation is painted as a reach—even, at one time, by yours truly—he's quickly becoming one of the safest possible options.

As a 7-footer with the gait of a shooting guard, he's an instant, culture-changing upgrade for New York's 28th-ranked defense. The Knicks admittedly didn't struggle with rim protection last season—they ranked eighth in restricted-area defense—but that's only because their porous perimeter prevention invited three-point attempts.

Besides, Cauley-Stein does a ton of everything. He blocks shots, hoards rebounds and can even force steals off the dribble. His 7.1 percent block rate ranked 12th in the country among all players to log at least 1,000 total minutes, while his rebounding percentage (14.5) would have ranked first among any Knicks player to match his playing time.

Some remain more inclined to focus on Cauley-Stein's per-game numbers and then declare them red flags. He grabbed fewer rebounds and blocked fewer shots than Towns, despite logging nearly 200 more minutes. But there is a reason behind that statistical disparity.

The reason's name is John Calipari.

Cauley-Stein's defense will be even more valuable outside of Kentucky's paint-packed system.
Cauley-Stein's defense will be even more valuable outside of Kentucky's paint-packed system.Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky's head honcho stationed Towns exclusively underneath the hoop. He was the team's primary shot-blocker and rebounder when on the floor by design and, more importantly, out of necessity.

Unlike pretty much every other 7'0" defender ever, Cauley-Stein needn't be chained to the paint or plopped inside the restricted area with the sole directive of swatting shots and snaring rebounds.

He's at his best, his most valuable, when instructed to dabble in perimeter defense.

Yes, perimeter defense. Cauley-Stein is quick and long and strong and able to blitz opponents laterally. He can easily go from defending guards to swingmen to lumbering bigs in the same possession.

Ahem:

Really, he's Anthony Davis' defensive twin—fraternal, not identical for all you naysayers. Trot him out at center, and, yes, you're going to get rim protection. But, in the Knicks' case, you're also going to get your best three-point and off-the-dribble defender.

That's scary, and it's where the comparisons to Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan start to diverge. Cauley-Stein is both of them on defense, with a modest man's Davis sprinkled in. That's why he's entered the top-five discussion, and it's why Indiana Pacers team president Larry Bird waxed nine-figure value over his potential, per the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner:

Candace Buckner @CandaceDBuckner

WCS on his meeting w/ #Pacers: "Larry (Bird) told me, ‘I think you’re a $100 million dollar player.’ I hear that and I’m like, ‘Really?!’"

Bird's sentiments aren't being echoed throughout the NBA, and they come from a front-office executive who isn't even in position to make Cauley-Stein a top-10 pick (Indiana drafts at No. 11).

There's still no refuting the immediate impact Cauley-Stein can make on the defensive end—especially as an anchor, rather than someone who's shifted around to accommodate the strengths of another tower.

Cauley-Stein's limited offensive game is what makes Bird's view seem hyperbolic. He never averaged in double figures at Kentucky, and the 6.1 field-goal attempts per game he hoisted as a junior were a personal best.

Drafting him could end up giving the Knicks someone who, while a potential double-double machine, never eclipses the 15- or even 12-point plateau regularly. And, as Joseph Flynn wrote for About Sports, that's just fine:

You won't see many traditional big men atop scoring leader boards in the modern, perimeter-driven NBA, but that doesn't mean that the position has lost its value. Today's centers arguably have more responsibility than ever before. They do far more than simply defend their counterpart in the low post and grab rebounds; they are the middle linebackers of the defense, flying from the perimeter to the paint and back again, switching and hedging and recovering to protect the rim from any and everybody.

Selecting a more polished offensive sidekick for Carmelo Anthony would be nice; it's not necessary. The Knicks fielded the equivalent of a top-10 offense when he was on the floor, and they can take to free agency to address any twine-tattering voids.

Seeing Cauley-Stein develop into more than just a pick-and-roll rim-rocker isn't out of the question either. His free-throw shooting improved in each of his three seasons at Kentucky, which is typically a good indication of range.

More than 39.4 percent of his two-point attempts also came as jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.com. He shot just 33.3 percent in those situations, but as CBS Sports' Sam Vecenie points out, he flashed some perimeter prowess nonetheless:

Sam Vecenie @Sam_Vecenie

Cauley-Stein took 30 shots outside of 11 feet this year and made 41% of them. Super small sample, but a little promising.

If you value videos of Cauley-Stein—along with Russell and Towns—swishing three-pointers in not-even-close-to-in-game situations, well, Ford has you covered:

Chad Ford @chadfordinsider

Video: Russell, Towns & WCS all show off their shooting stroke http://t.co/GFkTpLFiTW

Cauley-Stein won't get those kinds of open looks in actual games, and he takes too long to set himself and release jumpers right now. But the idea of him expanding his offensive arsenal to include mid- and long-range missiles is nothing new, per Ford:

Chad Ford @chadfordinsider

WCS shot it impressively today. Heard he often did the same in UK practices. If he can get that down consistently in a game setting, wow

"I don't think any of them thought I could make a three-pointer or free throws," Cauley-Stein told CBS Denver after working out for the Denver Nuggets. "I showed today that I've got good mechanics on the shot...I'm doing it over and over and showing them that I'm confident in my shot and consistently make it."

No, Cauley-Stein is not someone the Knicks should draft if they're looking for a floor-spacing behemoth who can make it rain. But they don't need to be in the market for such a player.

Investing in someone who could maybe, quite possibly, evolve into a more-than-serviceable jump-shooter is a smart play when that same someone stands to boost a flimsy defense upon entry. And the fact that Cauley-Stein doesn't demand offensive touches only makes it easier for the Knicks to pitch premier free agents on playing in New York.

Mudiay, Okafor, Russell and, to a far lesser extent, Winslow need the ball more. Inserting a defensive all-everything specialist into a rotation that will include Anthony and perhaps another ball-dominant star is simpler, both in the short and long term.

Cauley-Stein is a viable option the Knicks shouldn't just explore, but seriously consider at No. 4.
Cauley-Stein is a viable option the Knicks shouldn't just explore, but seriously consider at No. 4.Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

So while the Knicks, relative to their regular-season record, are drafting from a position of disfavor, they have not been bilked of the chance to land that second cornerstone. They'll have options when they're on the clock, from possibly Mudiay and Okafor, to Porzingis and Russell, to Cauley-Stein and Winslow.

Never before, though, has rolling with Cauley-Stein made more sense.

At minimum, he gives New York the same cornerstone-caliber prospect it'll find in anyone and everyone still available.

At best, and equally plausible, he could end up being everything the Knicks are looking for. 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, Sports-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

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