clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

An Argument For Willie Cauley-Stein

Willie Cauley-Stein's defensive skills and ability as a finisher should trump Jahlil Okafor's more polished and expansive offensive game when it comes time for the Wolves to draft.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Karl Anthony-Towns should be the number 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. If the Wolves get the number 1 pick and don't take Towns, I will be incredibly disappointed in the front office, as will most Wolves fans.

Though the Wolves are currently sitting in pole position for that first overall pick, the odds are that we won't get it. A 25% chance at winning the lottery is the highest in the league, but that leaves at 75% chance that we're picking 2 through 4. What then?

The conventional wisdom would be to just take Jahlil Okafor, if possible. He was the frontrunner for the first pick the majority of the year, surely he deserves to be the next big man off the board. His low-post game is fantastic, but I disagree. If the Wolves have a chance to take him, they should pass him up. Willie Cauley-Stein is the player we should be targeting in this situation.

Willie Cauley-Stein is a limited offensive player. He will not create offense for himself outside of grabbing offensive rebounds. He isn't much of a consistent post threat. He will not space the floor. He struggled unbelievably from the free throw line his freshman year (37.2%), was terrible his sophomore year (48.2), before finally becoming passable in his junior year (61.7). If Cauley-Stein ever averages more than 12-15 PPG, I would be floored. He's just not destined to be a guy who leads his team in scoring, and he probably won't be 2nd or 3rd either. He's also going to turn 22 before the start of the 2015-16 NBA season, which makes him older than other prospects.

Willie Cauley-Stein is also a game-changing force of a center on defense, and a freak of nature. Going off the measurements and numbers of Kentucky's preseason pro day, he is about to become the biggest athletic freak in the NBA. He's 7 feet tall, 240 pounds, and has a body fat percentage of 6.4%. He has a standing reach of 9'2" (same as Nerlens NoelTyson Chandler, and 2 inches higher than Anthony Davis), a no step vertical of 31 inches, and a max vertical of 37. The combination of his vertical and reach gives him a 12'3" maximum vertical reach, which would be the highest vertical reach in NBA Draft Combine history. Impressive numbers, but the most impressive part is how well he moves at this massive size.

The guy is a blur on the floor, running with fluidity and form almost unthinkable for a 7-footer. In fact, he finished 4th on the team during the pro day's 3/4th court sprint, coming in ahead of guard Aaron Harrison. His time of 3.15 seconds would tie the 2nd fastest mark for a center in NBA Draft Combine history, only 0.01 seconds slower than 1st place. In the lane agility drill, which is a test that combines sprinting, backpedalling, and two defensive slide across the length and width of the lane twice, he came in 2nd on the team with a time of 10.22 seconds. If he runs that speed at the NBA Draft Combine, it would've been the fastest time ever for a center by 0.4 of a second, and the 3rd fastest time in the combine's history for any position. All from a guy who is 7 feet tall. If you want to see him run without the 94 foot by 50 foot constraints of a basketball court, watch this highlight tape of him playing wide receiver in high school.

How many 7 footers on earth could be a wideout, never mind one who outruns the secondary on a slant, even if it's at only the high school level? When Willie Cauley-Stein hears his name called on draft day, he will take his place as the outlier in a league full of outliers.

His athleticism won't automatically make him a dominant force in the NBA, I for one haven't forgotten about the likes of Tyrus Thomas or Stromile Swift. Besides, games are won on the floor, not in Draft Combine measurements. However, in cases where an exceptionally athletic player wasn't able to last in the NBA, it is often the case that the player was undersized to begin with. This is also the problem that Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic is currently struggling with. When you make the leap from college to the NBA, you quickly find that everybody at every position is suddenly 2-3 inches taller than they were in college. Guys like Thomas, Swift, and now Gordon, all struggled mightily with this new dimension. Instead of being on equal footing physically and then overpowering the competition with athleticism, they were now undermanned physically and trying to make up for it with athleticism. It's a dangerous predicament, and few players in the NBA are able to adjust to the point where they are able to survive.

Willie Cauley-Stein doesn't have this problem, because he's easily big enough to play center in the NBA. We desperately need to draft a center, that's something that is pretty hard to argue against with all our youth at the other four positions. Assuming that's our targeted position, shouldn't we be taking a good, hard, look at the guy who has a solid chance to set three NBA Draft Combine records next month and is 7 feet tall?

This mix of size and athleticism possessed by Cauley-Stein makes him an incredibly versatile defender, and it's put on full display when we contrast his sophomore and junior seasons at Kentucky.

During Cauley-Stein's sophomore year, he shared many of his minutes with Julius Randle, an undersized power forward. Outside of Cauley-Stein, the 2013-14 Kentucky basketball team lacked a competent rim protector. Despite sharing starting duties with small forward Alex Poythress, who was being given starts to allow for more spacing so that Julius Randle could do his human bowling ball impersonation, Cauley-Stein flourished. He anchored the defense magnificently, posted the lowest DRtg on the team by more than 6 points, and blocked 106 shots, 75 more than the second place Randle.

Simply put, Willie Cauley-Stein's production was the entire summation of Kentucky's interior defense for the 2013-14 season, despite only playing 24 minutes a night. His block rate of 12.3% for the season was even higher than Joel Embiid's 11.7% during his freshman year at Kansas. That season, Willie Cauley-Stein blocked almost 1 out of every 8 opposing 2PA, which includes mid-range jumpers as well as interior finishing attempts. Ball handlers pulled up for floaters, cutters thought twice about entering the lane, and everybody on Kentucky's defense was able to inch toward their man and into passing lanes as Cauley-Stein served as their security blanket. His Dtrg was 91.5, the lowest on the team by 6 points per 100 possessions, and almost 9 points lower than the team's collective Dtrg. Everybody feared the rim protection of Willie Cauley-Stein, and rightfully so. Willie Cauley-Stein was an imposing pillar of shot blocking excellence. Finishing over him wasn't quite the 13th labor of Hercules, but it did require a Herculean effort.

However, this season everything changed. Randle was gone, and replaced by the far-superior-defensively Karl Anthony Towns. The 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats had a problem that every college team in America could only dream of having: They had two immensely talented 7-footers on the same team. In almost every other example of this in college basketball history, one 7-footer won the starting center job, and the other was relegated to the role of back-up. However, Willie Cauley-Stein's defensive versatility coupled with Karl Anthony-Town offensive versatility allowed for copious space for creative lineups. But, this year, instead of Cauley-Stein patrolling the middle, it was decided that the slower Towns would be allowed to clog the lane. Cauley-Stein was going to be the one to patrol the perimeter. As we all know, it was a screaming success. Kentucky rattled off 38 straight wins, and it could've easily been 40.

This time, Cauley-Stein succeeded in a very differnt defensive role. Kentucky's entire defensive scheme revolved around switching ball screens. While Cauley-Stein was not a "lock down" perimeter defender, he definitely won vastly more battles out there than he lost. For a man of his size, his lateral quickness was foreign to most attacking perimeter players, and good coaching ensured that Cauley-Stein always had his arms outstretched to the full breadth of his 7'2" wingspan. There wasn't a single instance in any of Kentucky's 39 games this year where a perimeter player was able to consistently burn Willie Cauley-Stein. While Karl Anthony-Towns was often waiting in the weeds to clean up any messes, Cauley-Stein usually took care of his own mistakes. Towns' help defense was often more of a supplement than necessity.

Instead of leading Kentucky in blocks like the year prior, Cauley-Stein led them in steals the 2014-15 season. Cauley-Stein's own block numbers plummeted, down to a still-respectable 67, but he never complained. He understood that his statistical sacrifice was in the best interest of the team. Some NBA scouts have suggested that he might be able to guard all five positions when he enters the league. That may be hyperbole, but in hedging situations I think that he'll be able to keep up with the ball-handler and push them away from the basket, stunting the pick and roll before it ever gains momentum.

The bottom line is that his versatility on the perimeter coupled with Towns' addition transformed them from a great to a transcendent defense, even if they didn't achieve their ultimate goal of a perfect season.Towns' and Cauley-Stein's numbers from this season were flooring, leading the Wildcats with scaldingly-low DRtg's of 78.1 for Towns and 80.0 for Cauley-Stein respectively. Out of players who played 500 minutes, those DRtg's are the 4th and 5th lowest in college since the 2009-10 season, when DRtg first started being tracked. They're also the best 2 figures ever recorded in a major conference, barely edging out Anthony Davis' mark of 80.3 in 2011-12. Willie Cauley-Stein's freshman and sophomore seasons might've been great for defensive efficiency (his DRtg was 91.1 his freshman year), but his junior season was historic.

In addition to how extraordinary he was on defense, he was actually quite good on offense as well, despite not being a prolific scorer or creator.

In the 2013-14 season, his Otrg was 122.8, best on the team out of players who played 200 or more minutes, and roughly 10 points better than the team mark. In 2014-15, his Otrg dipped slightly to 119.8, which was 4th on the team among players with over 200 minutes played. This may seem strange on first glance, considering that Cauley-Stein never averaged more than 9 PPG during his 3 seasons, but his great marks are a combination of several factors that made Cauley-Stein an important offensive player. Cauley-Stein is a good (but not great) offensive rebounder. Offensive rebounds often lead to easy dunks and layups, which equals more points.  Other factors contributing to his excellent offensive ratings don't show up as easily in the box score.

First, opposing teams feared being beaten with a lob to Cauley-Stein, which would invariably lead to a thunderous alley-oop. Opponents feared this so much that whenever Cauley-Stein found a seam to dive to the basket through, things happened. A least one, and usually two, help-side defenders would abandon their men to attempt to beat Cauley-Stein to the takeoff point of the impending alley-oop. Opposing players knew they couldn't beat him in a jumping contest, so the only way to stop these alley-oops was by getting in Cauley-Stein's way before he was in the air. This leads to a huge spacing and match up problems in defenses though, as everybody has to rotate to an open man. This often leads to mismatches, wreckless closeouts, open corner 3's, big-guarded-by-little post-up opportunities, or this:

Second, Cauley-Stein gets off the ground incredibly quickly, and he tries to dunk everything. This might not seem like it would help an offense that much, but, it actually does in a very odd way. Because Cauley-Stein is such a big target for passes and possession such great hands, a hearken back to his wide receiver days, he is often looked to in situations where the defense has collapsed on a penetrating teammate. However, opposing bigs read the scouting report and they know this, so they are wary to leave him in situations that would normally call for them to commit to help side defense. Further complicating this dilemma is that if they do commit to help across the lane, and are able to force a bad shot, Cauley-Stein is ready to clean up anything that misses long.

Lastly, he's an outstanding finisher. According to, Cauley-Stein shot 72.5% at the rim this season. While that percentage is driven up by the amount of dunks that he has, he has also shown to have some nice touch inside. He has a workable jump hook on which he exhibits nice touch on around the rim. He is also nimble on his feet which will allow him to escape out of situations where his matchup appears to have walled him up. I'm not saying that he has an amazing offensive repertoire, but what he does, he does incredibly well, and it can be an offensive force in the NBA.

If you're looking for the effect this can have in the NBA, look no further than Tyson Chandler. He is the master of this school of offense, and despite being known primarily for his defense, he has led the league in OTrg 4 of the past 5 season. Obviously you have to pair Chandler with a good passing ball handler and some other scoring threat, he's not going to carry the load by himself. But, if you supply him with those pieces, he's fantastic. His career high of 133 in both 2012-13 and 2014-15 are tied for the 6th highest OTrg of all time. Not bad for a guy who never averaged more than 12 PPG. With the wing scorers the Wolves have (Wiggins, Shabazz, and LaVine, all of whom will only get better from here) and a point guard who is probably the best passer in the NBA, this is a situation that calls for a Chandler-type player.

The effect that Cauley-Stein could have on the Wolves offense could be significant, only overshadowed by his effect on our defense, which is 30th out of 30 in the NBA. No longer will there only be one line of defense, leading to when a player is beat on the perimeter, a dunk is given up. If Cauley-Stein is only an above-average rim protector in his rookie year—which I think is his absolute floor—he'll still be worlds better than Pek and Gorgui (who, according to Nylon Calculus, are the 5th and 7th worst rim protectors as measured by FG% allowed in the league). What if Rubio, Wiggins, and Shabazz were able to play their man tighter and gamble 15-20% more for steals with the reassurance of a quality rim protector behind them? Would any Wolves fan not want to see this happen?

In contrast to Willie-Cauley Stein, we have Jahill Okafor, who seems like the logical choice to take if we don't get Towns. Now, this isn't supposed to be a hit piece on Okafor and his ability. I think Okafor is a great low post scorer, and it wouldn't surprise me if he put up numbers like 18/8 in his prime. The problem is that I don't think that you can win in the NBA if you're rolling out Okafor at center.

Okafor's offense is incredibly impressive. He's light on his feet, comfortable shooting with his right or his left, and has a great counter for every move in his arsenal. His numbers are great and he's a lot of fun to watch post up. Really, a fantastic low post weapon.

However, that production comes at a cost. When Okafor was in the game, Duke had the bonus of having an elite low post scorer, but it came at the cost of clogging the lane. Unlike Cauley-Stein, Okafor is not a great target for screen-and-dives. However, He's a still a nice target for dump downs from penetrating teammates. But, unlike Cauley-Stein, he doesn't get off the ground very quickly, and leans more on his bulk/strength to overpower smaller defenders and get through them and to the rim. This is a problem when we forecast this playstyle into the NBA because in the NBA, every center is big and strong.

Okafor is going be an average NBA leaper for the center center and will have to gather himself for his jumps. This gives the defense precious tenths of a second to adjust and body him up, which will make it harder to finish. I project Okafor to be a great low post player on offense, and a solid passer with his back to the basket, but I think he'll be an average at best catch and finish big. In a league that is evolving to be more about pace, spacing, and athleticism, that's a problem. Unlike Cauley-Stein, who will frighten defenses with his ability to soar for balls in space and dunks around the rim, Okafor will be generally treated with about the same respect as an average NBA center. This will hurt an NBA offense.

Even in college this was the case. Out of players who played more than 300 minutes for Duke this year, Okafor ranked 6th out of 9 in OTrg. Obviously other variables went into that number, but it's still unnerving to see that a player who is marketed entirely on his offensive abilities throw up that kind of dud. Furthermore, that number was only slightly better than Duke's number as a team (119.9 vs 119.4), and is dwarfed in comparison to Tyus Jone's (125.0), Quinn Cook's (129.6), and—albeit in a considerably smaller sample size—Marshall Plumlee (142.7).

The problem with Okafor was that every time he was in the game, the entire offense had to run through him. He was a talented post player who deserved to be fed the ball, but he also clogged the lane, which made driving impossible. Jone and Winslow couldn't play to their strengths (penetrating), and Quinn Cook was only getting open looks from swings and skips, not drive and kicks. So, while Okafor feasted, scoring 17 PPG on 64% shooting, everybody sharing the floor with him starved. Okafor was scoring, but he was also restricting everybody else from playing to their strengths.

On defense, Okafor actually played pretty well, posting the 3rd lowest DRtg on the team (95.4), and leading the team in blocks with 54. But, when reviewing the tape, Okafor doesn't project well as a defensive player to the next level.
Okafor's big, but he's not laterally quick, and while he has a long wingspan (7'5"), his length is diminished in practical situations by that lack of lateral quickness. Though he led his team in blocks, his block percentage of 4.5% was actually quite low for a 7-footer in college. While Willie Cauley-Stein as sophomore blocked roughly 1 out of every 8 2PA's, Okafor blocked roughly 1 out of every 22. His biggest problem hindering his ability to block shots is that he doesn't get off the ground quickly, and he doesn't get much lift on his jumps. He also seems to lack the natural defensive instincts that Cauley-Stein has, which is big in the scheme of things. It's almost impossible to teach those instincts to prospects. I can't think of one center who was a poor college defender and then became a good NBA rim protector in the last 15 years.

While his original defensive positioning—which is more science than instinct—is often very good, Okafor lacks the quickness to keep up with the play as it's going towards the rim. Sometimes he shows nice lateral quickness and is able to contain a pick and roll where his man set the pick, but often penetrating guards just make a move or just beat him to the spot, and they're gone. Another problem that stand out is his tendency to backpedal, which makes his defensive efficiency plummet. When penetrating players see him starting to do that, they run the ball right into his chest. They understand that he doesn't have the explosiveness to stop, gather, and contest vertical with a good jump. Oftentimes, when he backpedals, he never even gets off the ground as the penetrator will stop on a dime, leaving Okafor to be swept away by his own momentum.

The backpedaling problems coupled with the rather pedestrian quickness is a scary mix. This means that for him to succeed, his positioning needs to be utterly perfect. He can't give ground heading towards the rim, and it's tough for him to stay in front of people. In hedging, that is quite of an obstacle to overcome. In rim protection, it's not that bad on it's own, but when you add in pedestrian jumping ability, it becomes a problem.

We need a rim protector, and Okafor does not project to be one at this level. Our defense will not improve under Okafor, and history tells us that he probably will never learn to be a plus-defender at this level.

If we look at the top 10 teams in the league record-wise only three of them start centers who are considered low post scorers (Gasol on Memphis, Duncan on San Antonio, and Horford with Atlanta). More significantly, only two starting bigs on those teams score more points per possession (PPP) in post up situations than the league average for PPP in all situations (1.056). Those players are Robin Lopez (1.06), and Tiago Splitter (1.07).

The reason for this is simple: Only 9.6% of players in the NBA that have had a minimum of 10 post up opportunities score above the league average PPP in post-up situations. Even more damning is that one of those 21 players who accomplish this feat, is none other than Justin Hamilton in his 16 post-up attempts. In fact, none of those 21 players  had more than 100 post-up opportunities. None of the superstars that we associate with posting up actually score above league average when they do it. Not Jonas Valanciunas (0.99 PPP, 299 post-up possession), not LaMarcus Aldridge (0.98, 605), not Dirk Nowitzki (0.95, 309), or Blake Griffin (0.95, 397), Marc Gasol (0.94, 524) or Brook Lopez (0.94, 266), or even Al Jefferson (0.93, 657). It's incredible. In fact, out of players with 20 possessions or more, the leader in PPP is George Hill, the point guard, with a PPP of 1.17 on 24 post-ups.

The post-up is still a weapon is you're trying to draw double teams and kick out of them, but for scoring purposes, it's almost entirely useless. This does not bode well for Okafor, being that his main selling point is how well he scores in post up opportunities. The vast majority of efficient NBA scoring opportunities for big men come from catch-and-finish situations. Having a player who is great in those situations is so much more important than having a good post up player.

Willie Cauley-Stein might be the prototype for the "modern" NBA center, and if we miss out on Towns, we can't miss out on Cauley-Stein. Last year I was fortunate enough to come into email correspondence with James Kerti, an independent basketball scout at the college and NBA level. The most important tip that he gave me was to stick to my guns, despite what the rankings say. I know that almost every basketball publication has Okafor going 2. Chad Ford has Cauley-Stein at 7, DraftExpress at 6, and has him at 8. But in the Wolves' situation, with the great, young pieces they already have in place, I think Cauley-Stein is a better choice than Okafor if Towns is unavailable. In a situation where we pick 2-4, we could probably even trade down and receive a nice asset or two for our troubles. In last year's draft, Orlando traded a first and a second round pick to move from 12 to 10. Imagine what a team who is Mudiay, Okafor, or Russell crazy would pay to move from 5 to 2.

If this organization is serious about being championship contenders in the Wiggins Era, we need to take a serious look at what is working and not working around the rest of the league. That's how we need to analyze what is important, and make our pick based off of that. If there was ever an example that illustrates this, we have to look no further than our division foe, the Utah Jazz.

This season, the Jazz entered a renaissance after Enes Kanter was shipped out in mid-February, allowing for Rudy Gobert to finally start every night. The Jazz were 19-34 with the 4th worst defense in the NBA when they made that trade. They've gone 19-9 since, with wins over the Spurs, Grizzlies, and Rockets. 7 of those 9 loses have been by 5 or less, and they have the best defense in the NBA in that time, 5 points better per every 100 possessions than the next best team. The trade probably cost them 6 spots in the draft lottery, but that's an acceptable loss at this point for Jazz fans. We've all realized by now that the Jazz improved massively by dumping Kanter, but to actually see the statistics is staggering. While Rudy does things on offense at a high level (he's top 10 in the league in TS%, and offensive and defensive rebounding percentage), his rim protection was the only thing that really changed the landscape for the Jazz. In fact, their offense was almost unchanged, moving from an ORtg of 102.9 pre-All-Star break to 101.8 post-All-Star Break. Enes Kanter was adding nothing on offense, and costing them an enormous amount on defense.

Jahill Okafor is a super appealing option. He'll probably put up much better scoring numbers than Cauley-Stein. But, the Timberwolves need to be mature here. Everybody loves to swing for the fences for the 20 PPG superstar, but we already have our superstar, and we have 2 great scoring options behind him. The best part is, their ages are 20, 20, and 22, and the whole thing in anchored by our 24-year old point guard.

In that situation, you gotta be mature and pick Willie Cauley-Stein.