KU's Big Man A Beast On 'D,' But Lack Of Offensive Game Could Scare Away Knicks

By John Schmeelk
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The NBA draft is less than three weeks away, and with the Knicks picking fourth they’ll have a number of options available to them. Until then, we’ll continue to take a look at the 10 players that could come into play for Phil Jackson if he stays put or trades down.

Willie Cauley-Stein: C/PF, junior, Kentucky, 7-feet, 241 pounds, 21 years old

Kentucky stats: 26 minutes, 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 1.2 steals, 57 percent shooting

Cauley-Stein is one of the most unique big men to come out of college in some time. He is lithe at 7 feet and 241 pounds, with the agility and movement skills of a guard that set him apart from the other big men in the draft. His calling card is defense, whereas his offensive output is completely projection-based. He was not asked to be a scorer at Kentucky, spare occasional dunks. At 21, he is a virtual old man compared to some of the youngsters who will be on the board.

What we know he can do: This guy can defend, defend and defend some more. He can more or less do it all on that end of the floor. He can guard all five positions, and was asked to do just that by John Calipari at Kentucky in multiple games. Whether on switches or straight-up matchups, he manned up with opposing guards and took them out of the game. His unique agility makes him particularly effective covering the pick-and-roll where he can hedge on guards effectively or outright switch onto them.

He is also a superior rim protector, protecting the back of the defense from opposing penetrators. Though not extremely long with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he routinely challenged and affected shots near the rim. He has a quick leap and moves quickly to intercept opponents on their way to the rim. He also does a good job of intercepting passes in the paint.

We know he is an excellent transition player on offense. He has the speed to beat defenders down court, and he finishes well at the rim when he can dunk. He also rebounded well on the offensive end.

What we think he can do: Cauley-Stein should be an effective player in the pick-and-roll game offensively. He elevates to dunk on lob passes and cuts to the basket. He should be efficient as a roll man crashing the rim from the lane or the baseline after setting a screen for the guard.

He also flashed an improved mid-range jump shot in his junior year at Kentucky, though he didn’t show it very often at all. Recent workouts show a deft shooting touch, but it is always dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a practice in an empty gym against zero defenders. In the workout he showed range to the college three-point line, and good form on his mid-range jumper. He shot off the dribble, on catch and shoots and on spot-ups.

He could be an effective pick-and-pop player if the jumper holds up during game competition. It should be noted that while he only shot 62 percent from the line last year, he has showed constant improvement there going back to his freshman year (37 percent as a freshman, 48 percent as a sophomore).

In those same workouts he also showed a good handle and the ability to drive to the rim, including some good footwork on spin moves in the lane. That’s something he didn’t do much in game situations. It is only a workout but it shows his potential. He has superior quickness to almost every other 7-footer in the league.

Potential is the word you will hear again and again with Cauley-Stein offensively. He simply wasn’t asked to be a scorer at Kentucky, so all these things we mentioned above we think he can do are merely projection based on a workout. We haven’t seen him do it much in a game, so there is some risk in assuming he will develop those skills.

What we’re worried about: With his thin frame and lack of strength, it is unlikely he will ever develop a back-to-the-basket game. That lack of strength also made him a mediocre defensive rebounder in college (though guarding players on the perimeter and challenging shots hurt those numbers as well). I wouldn’t count on him to play defense against stronger post players, either.

You won’t find another player picked in the top eight that is nearly as raw offensively. There’s a good chance he will never be able to create his own shot in any way, shape or form on the pro level. He’s not a playmaker that will pass well and set up his teammates. When he doesn’t dunk it, he has trouble finishing around the basket. There just doesn’t seem to be a good feel on the offensive end. Instinct can be a tough thing to teach and develop, and right now he just doesn’t seem to have it offensively.

Off the court: There are some whispers that teams are concerned about his love for the game, and whether or not he has the work ethic to develop the way they think he can. He does not have your typical athlete personality. Will his defensive intensity stay high over the long haul? He improved over the course of his college career, which eases the fears, but sometimes big paychecks demotivate people.

Buzz: Word is that the Knicks are heavily considering Cauley-Stein. He should be a top-eight pick at the very least.

Floor/ceiling: I went through about a dozen different versions of this and I came up with nothing. Cauley-Stein is unique, with the agility of a small forward or shooting guard, but the height of a center. There aren’t many players in the league with that set of athletic talents. At worst, he will be a top defender with limited or no offensive game other than finishing around the hoop. At his best he will be a perennial all-defense player with a good jumper and ability to finish on pick-and-rolls and in transition.

Fit on the Knicks: He’s exactly what the team needs defensively, but finding a place for him in the triangle could be challenging. Jackson likes all his players to be able to move the ball, shoot and be a part of the offense. Cauley-Stein is strictly a finisher and making him any sort of decision-maker at this stage would be folly. The Knicks want to run more, and he would be a huge asset in that department. Offensively, Cauley-Stein would be most effective right away in the pick-and-roll, something the Knicks don’t do much of. If he plays center with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, will the team rebound well enough on the defensive side of the floor?

Prediction: I bet that ultimately the Knicks will get scared off by his lack of offensive polish and go elsewhere, but Cauley-Stein is on their radar — and he should be. Phil Jackson has talked about the need for an anchor big man defensively, and Cauley-Stein fits that role perfectly. Watch for his name to be linked to the Knicks a lot over the next three weeks.

I decided to slide Cauley-Stein in front of the two European prospects, who I will tackle this week.

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, the NBA, the Giants and the world of sports.