As I wrote about earlier on Sunday, Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein and his camp has made it public that they do not wish to return to the organization for the 2019-20 season.
Unfortunately, for Cauley-Stein, it’s not exactly going to be up to him.
The former Kentucky big will be a restricted free agent this summer if the Kings offer him the $6.2 million Qualifying Offer (QO) that is a part of the final year on his rookie contract. Meaning, any team that decides to give Cauley-Stein an offer sheet can be matched by the Kings within 72 hours of the initial offer. If Sacramento decides to not extend the QO, then Cauley-Stein will enter free agency this summer as an unrestricted free agent and is free to sign with any team.
Basically, the Kings have a ton of leverage over this situation.
There won’t be much of a reason not to extend the QO and at least attempt to bring back Cauley-Stein. If anything, he’ll be a tradeable asset or they can simply refuse to match an offer sheet from another team if they deem it too expensive. But the reality is that Cauley-Stein doesn’t want to make a return to Sactown and his agent has made that clear. So now we should look at other possibilities.
He may be a non-shooting big navigating through the most inflated shooting stretch in NBA history, but he still holds tremendous value.
Cauley-Stein appeared and started in all but one game last season, averaging over 27 minutes per game. He has some of the quickest hands and feet in the entire league, not just for a seven-footer. His 1.8 steal percentage was one of the highest marks in the NBA among centers. The Kings transition offense posted 132.2 points per 100 transition plays when WCS was on the court, an elite-level mark. His effectiveness as a lob-threat out of the pick-and-roll has made him a roll man with gravitational pull, opening up good looks for surrounding shooters. As a whole, the Kings were 5.1 points per 100 possessions better with WCS on the floor compared to when he sat throughout last season.
The Kings have until June 30th to decide whether or not they want to extend a QO to the 25-year old.
There isn’t much hope for any superstar potential in the Kansas native, but he does fit the Kings system quite well. When Cauley-Stein was surrounded by four shooters with De’Aaron Fox directing the offense, he was the perfect complement. Whether it was sprinting the floor in transition, drawing defenders due to the threat of an alley-oop, or creating havoc with his long arms, he was the perfect mold for the type of basketball that Sacramento instilled with Dave Joerger as head coach.
However, the Kings rebuild has been fast-tracked a bit thanks to surprising leaps from Fox and Buddy Hield along with the stellar rookie season from Marvin Bagley. After the franchise brought in Harrison Barnes (who declined a $25 million player option, which opens up the possibility for the Kings to bring him back on a cheaper, long term deal), the Kings have shown that they aren’t going to take any more baby steps. They want to win and they want to win now. Plus, they’ll have the cap room to do it.
But do they want to invest that money into a player that doesn’t even want to be there? Especially a player that has consistently played himself off the court?
Kings’ general manager Vlade Divac recently told The Sacramento Bee that “It’s a tough question,” in regards to bringing back Cauley-Stein. “We would like to keep Willie in terms of his talent potential, but he still needs to show us the consistency that we are looking for. We are talking.”
Consistency has always been his biggest issue. Often times he looks like the best player on the floor. When he’s fully engaged, I have watched him play excellent defense on superstars such as Joel Embiid. The length he possesses combined with unnatural agility provide him all the tools to become a lockdown defender. But he’s never averaged more than 1.0 blocks per game during his four seasons. Opponents shot 65 percent at the rim when Cauley-Stein was on the floor last season, a horrendous number for a defense. There is something missing. I don’t know if it’s his motor, awareness, or what, but if he’s not playing right on the ball, he isn’t effective on defense.
Also, there are the poor shooting numbers. Cauley-Stein never came into the league with the thought that he would need to develop an outside shot, but the ever-changing landscape of the league has quickly necessitated that. He doesn’t need to start shooting two or three triples per game, but he does need to improve his 15-footer.
As you can see from his shot chart this past season, WCS has two shots in his arsenal: right at the rim or straight on from the free throw line area. Only 6.5 percent of his shot attempts last season came from the 10-16 feet out mark. He connected on less than 36 percent of those shots. For reference, his teammate, Buddy Hield, shot nearly 43 percent from three.
Cauley-Stein himself even acknowledged his limitations back in March, according to The Sacramento Bee.
“I just want to hoop freely,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s kind of the biggest thing for me, just going somewhere, whether it’s here or anywhere else, just taking that next evolution to the game where you’re not just a rim runner. You’re a pick-and-pop guy sometimes. You can get rolling with what the defense gives you. I wanna be that dude.”
In order to be that dude, he has to be more aggressive and less hesitant. If he wants to be a pick-and-pop guy, he can’t shoot under 36 percent on shots from those spots. As the season went on, he became a player who was much better at understanding what was happening around him. I’d argue that running the fastest pace in the NBA for 81 games had something to do with that. Those zip passes from Fox in transition used to go right by him without even a hand raised. But as the season dragged along, his head was always up, expecting those type of tight looks through multiple defenders. However, that attentiveness never truly transferred to the defensive end.
So what teams should be looking at the slender, seven-footer? I’d expect there to be several likely candidates, especially since he shouldn’t come at an unfair price point.
The teams expected to have the most cap space this summer that might be in contention for WCS include the Knicks, Clippers, Mavericks, Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Magic, and yes, even the Kings. I’d say the most realistic options are with the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks. Cauley-Stein would be an upgrade over Robin Lopez (an upcoming free agent) on the Bulls and would slot nicely next to Lauri Markkanen, a sharp-shooting stretch-four. Dallas could use a similar “Tyson Chandler-type” player that helped them win a championship back in 2011 (although the recent experiment with DeAndre Jordan didn’t exactly go as planned). He’d also be a great fit with Luka Doncic in the pick-and-roll as well as a complementary piece to Kristaps Porzingis in the frontcourt.
The New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies are also two teams that could use some solidity at the center position for the future.
As for how much money he might earn, that is up for debate. Last summer, Jusuf Nurkic earned himself a 4-year, $48 million deal ($12 million per season) from the Portland Trail Blazers. Nurkic is arguably a better overall player than Cauley-Stein in almost every area. Players such as Nerlens Noel ($1.8 million per season) and JaVale McGee ($2.4 million) didn’t exactly help Cauley-Stein last summer, either. Derrick Favors, however, earned himself $18 million per season last summer as a traditional big man.
Centers – especially non-shooting ones – just aren’t making high-dollar contracts right now. Avery Bradley and Dante Exum (both guards) received upwards of $11 million per season last summer form their respective teams, and they aren’t even respectable shooters. But Cauley-Stein has youth on his side and more than enough raw talent. I’d expect teams to offer him somewhere in the $12-15 million per year range, possibly even as low as $10 million per season. With the number of teams that have cap space this summer, that is a more than appropriate figure.
Don’t expect to see Willie Cauley-Stein catching lobs from Fox next year, but I would definitely expect a man with a brand new mindset on the type of player he wants to become. And I am incredibly excited to see what happens.