Kentucky forward Karl Anthony-Towns has exploded as one of the most talked about college player in the nation. Although that reputation is definitely warranted, his frontcourt mate Willie Cauley-Stein has played second fiddle on the undefeated Kentucky team.
On a team filled with top-flight freshmen prospects (four members of the Kentucky roster played in the McDonald's All-American game last year), the 21-year-old Cauley-Stein definitely stands out from the pack. However, Cauley-Stein has been a consistently solid player throughout his career at Kentucky, averaging 9.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting 58 percent from the field 25 minutes per game. Although he does sit as an elder statesman on the Wildcats team, Cauley-Stein has had a career filled with high expectations, as he was a four-star recruit in the same class as current NBA studs Nerlens Noel and Steven Adams.
Compared to Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein definitely exhibits the same kind of physical tendencies, but without carrying the ridiculous amount of upside. For Cauley-Stein, a lot of that athleticism is showcased on the defensive end, which has lead to him maintaining the reputation as one of the most imposing defenders in the nation.
While big men like Towns or the Texas Longhorns' Myles Turner rack up blocks, Cauley-Stein more resembles Tyson Chandler. By that comparison, I mean that both Cauley-Stein and Chandler are able to dominate on the defensive end based on their presence and defensive awareness:
Unlike Chandler, Cauley-Stein appears to be most comfortable with going out to the perimeter and defending against guards. The 7-footer is able to use his size and quickness to maintain pace with even the most athletic guards. Just that level of versatility could be a huge asset for a team like the Lakers, who don't exactly have the most defensively-sound perimeter unit.
Cauley-Stein does a terrific job of controlling the paint without getting into any foul trouble. Per 40 minutes, Cauley-Stein has averaged 3.4 fouls, which is the second-lowest total among draft eligible centers. He's able to accomplish that by constantly getting into the perfect position to prevent the opposition from scoring. Although he's extremely athletic and can tend to be aggressive, he's very controlled with how he uses that combination on the defensive end.
Unlike Towns, Cauley-Stein has struggled with developing much of an offensive skill set. Based entirely on his physical traits, it would be seem like his best offensive fit would be as a catch-and-score big that would work off pick-and-rolls. However, since Kentucky runs more of a motion-heavy offense compared to pick-and-rolls, Cauley-Stein really doesn't have much of an opportunity to showcase his athletic ability unless he's working in transition.
While it's far from fully developed, Cauley-Stein has displayed some amount of mid-range game. As a player that hasn't really focused on this part of his game, he has a pretty smooth looking jumper with a high release point and smooth follow through. That improving shot is evident by him shooting 61 percent from the free-throw line, which is a major improvement over shooting48 percent from his sophomore season.
Although his work on the offensive end is still a work in progress, Cauley-Stein will be able to make an immediate NBA impact based on his work on the defensive end. Cauley-Stein's athleticism and high defensive IQ is something rarely seen from a draft prospect. While it may be too optimistic to think that he could step on an NBA floor and be at the same defensive level as Anthony Davis or Rudy Gobert, he does show signs he could develop into a team's defensive anchor. That alone could be enough to warrant the Lakers using their top-5 pick on Willie Cauley-Stein.