The Sacramento Kings have been perpetually rebuilding for over a decade now. They haven’t won over 40 games since 2006, the last year they made the NBA playoffs.
The franchise has gone through eight coaches since Rick Adelman led them to the playoffs for eight straight seasons from 1999-2006. Since those wonder years, the Kings have been the graveyard of the NBA. Some of their headline players over the previous years include Kevin Martin, Beno Udrih, Rudy Gay, Isaiah Thomas, and – of course – DeMarcus Cousins. We all know how that last story ended.
In recent seasons, Sacramento has been the organization most associated with turmoil. They mishandled the development of Boogie, Tyreke Evans, and Isaiah Thomas among several others. Went through an entire restructuring of both the front office and roster after the team was sold in 2013. Wasted the entire 2015-16 season because they thought George Karl would be a good fit to coach Cousins. Most importantly, they’ve swung and missed on nearly every lottery pick they’ve had since Bismack Biyombo was drafted number seven overall in 2011 (save some time for De’Aaron Fox). At some point, it should be acknowledged that maybe the King aren’t bad at drafting the right prospect, they’re just horrendous at developing them.
Which is why Willie Cauley-Stein’s fourth season in both Sacramento and the NBA, is going to be his most important yet.
Cauley-Stein is locked into his contract with Sacramento for at least one more season. Next summer, he can become a restricted free agent. The Kings frontcourt is getting crowded. His time to make the leap is now.
Let’s take a look at Sacramento’s frontcourt heading into next season. 36-year old Zach Randolph was actually one of the team’s most consistent players last season, which shouldn’t be too surprising given his NBA track record. He was incredibly reliable on a young team. Randolph averaged over 25 minutes per game last season and he’ll still see plenty of playing time this coming season, but with more of a mentor-type role attached to that. The Kings went out and drafted Duke forward Marvin Bagley IV with the number two overall pick (who was not even in the top 5 on my big board and below fellow Duke forward Wendell Carter Jr.) who would, in theory, slide next to WCS at the four and help space the floor (Bagley was 16-33 on three-pointers from the NBA line during his one season at Duke, according to The Stepien) while keeping the frontcourt long and flexible. Skal Labissiere didn’t show major signs of improvement from year one to year two, so the jury is still out on his potential path. What’s going to make things interesting is the resurrection of Harry Giles.
Giles – another Duke product – has battled serious knee injuries since high school and missed the entirety of last season for similar reasons. But that didn’t stop the Kings from giving him a four-year contract (although the last two years are team options). In the few instances that people have been able to watch Giles during an actual game, he’s been impressive. He played incredibly well at the Summer League this offseason, something the Kings will surely consider when deliberating early season rotational minutes. He’s a high risk, even higher reward type of player. If he plays well out of the gate with little signs of a nagging knee, that puts the Kings at five rotational big men.
Cauley-Stein’s third season was easily his best. He was generally inconsistent on both sides of the court, however, went through spells during the season where he looked like the Kings best player and it wasn’t even close (although Bogdan Bogdanovic took home the title of Kings best player for about the last month or two). WCS averaged 12.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists last season on 50.2 percent shooting from the field in 28 minutes per game. On the downside, he hasn’t been the rim protector that he can be and was an average finisher around the basket. He did adopt a mid-range jump shot from around the free-throw line but was an inefficient scorer everywhere else.
But WCS brings a lot of unique intangibles to the table for Sacramento. He was one of the best passing big men in the league last season. He is one of few NBA players that are seven-feet tall and can properly survey the court with accurate passes to follow. He’s developed a hook shot that can come from both his right and left hand. His 22.4 steal percentage was one of the highest among big men in the NBA. There are plenty of signs that show Cauley-Stein has NBA talent, so maybe it doesn’t all fall on him.
The Kings selection of Bagley and apparent overconfidence in Giles makes me wonder just how far they plan on taking Cauley-Stein along with them. If they choose to, they can simply let him go to the highest bidder next offseason as a restricted free agent. Hell, they could even trade him if they wanted to – there is a market out there for agile centers like Cauley-Stein, albeit a smaller market than centers who can shoot.
Leaving Sacramento might actually be the best option for Cauley-Stein’s development. If that’s the case, he needs to add to his value and do so fast. He’s already 24 and will be 25 by the time the season begins. There isn’t much potential for substantial improvement after age 25 as far as NBA front offices are concerned. Unless you find a hidden gem in Victor Oladpio or, to a lesser extent, Jeremy Lamb, 25 is typically a year we can look at to determine if a player is actually developing and can be a longterm impact player. And like Oladpio, maybe Cauley-Stein needs that change of venue. For Oladipo, it was getting out of the shadow of Russell Westbrook and being able to create the offense himself. For Cauley-Stein, maybe it’s finding a team with veteran guard play and a player development program that doesn’t result in constant player turnover.
My fear is that it may already be too late for Cauley-Stein. If that’s the case, we’ve found his floor, which is a starting center on a bad team and the sixth or seventh man for a good team. He came into the league with a Tyson Chandler-level ceiling and that is still attainable. But if he wants to mold himself into what Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets has become on offense, he needs to be surrounded by veteran playmakers who know how to get him involved. If Cauley-Stein wants to mimic Capela on defense, he has a long way to go and there is little evidence that could convince me Sacramento is the team to get him there.
If we take a look at the nine 24-year old centers in the NBA who played more than 10 games last season, Cauley-Stein is smack dab in the middle of them. The top half of the list includes Joel Embiid, Steven Adams, Andre Drummond, and Capela, who have all already established themselves as reliable starting centers on playoff teams who can play both sides of the ball. The bottom half of the list includes Nerlens Noel, Montrezl Harrell, Richaun Holmes, and Willy Hernangomez, players who have made contributions but aren’t starter material. Outside of Noel (mainly due to injury concerns), there are two distinct splits between these two groups. Cauley-Stein doesn’t seem to have an identity just yet on either side. If anything, he’s leaning towards the bottom half. He can still make the jump, but time is slipping.