SAN FRANCISCO – Willie Cauley-Stein is an asset. He is a lottery-pick bust. He is always getting better. He is an eternal underachiever.
What is Cauley-Stein’s ceiling as an NBA player?
To hear him tell it, even during this woeful season, there is a much better chance of discovering that as a member of the Warriors -- where the habitat is conducive to improvement -- than there ever was during his four years with the Sacramento Kings.
“If we didn’t have that chemistry off the court, or on the court – we all want to see each other do well – it would be miserable,” he said Thursday. “I’ve been on teams where they don’t like each other, and you’re losing and it’s a weird environment. It’s a bad work in environment.
“That’s one thing that I really have to say about this organization. The work environment is crazy. You have no choice but to get better if you come here.”
Before becoming a free agent in July and signing with the Warriors, Cauley-Stein spent his first four seasons with the Kings, who drafted him No. 6 overall in 2015. He played 295 games with the Kings, making 199 starts.
The Kings, disappointed in his production, let him walk. The Warriors wasted little time reaching out to the 7-foot center and offering a two-year contract worth $4.5 million. Year 2 is a player option, and Cauley-Stein sounds like a man eager to exercise it.
It’s not the big contract he had hoped for, but Cauley-Stein believes he is in the right place to raise his value should he go back on the open market.
Coach Steve Kerr raves about Cauley-Stein’s willingness to be coached, and sometimes that comes with criticism. The same could be said of the urgings of Warriors veteran Draymond Green, whose tongue spares no one.
“It just shows that they care,” Cauley-Stein said. “Some places, they don’t care. They’re going to let you bump your head, and then when you bump your head, they’re going to care and tell you what you did wrong. But before that, they’ve been watching you.”
To that end, Cauley-Stein, 26, spent an extra half hour after practice Thursday working on a variety of moves under the observation of veteran assistant Ron Adams.
"He’s a guru, man,” Cauley-Stein said of the 72-year-old coach. “He sees something in my touch, in my shot. I’ve been seeing something in it. It’s, ‘Hey, man, you can shoot the ball. Let’s work on getting your base right, so you can make it when you shoot it.’
“That just leaves something in you. They see something that I’ve been waiting for somebody to see.”
After missing all of training camp, the preseason and the first three games with a sprained left foot, Cauley-Stein is starting to show glimpses of the skills that attracted the Warriors. Averaging 22.7 minutes – about five fewer than in the last two seasons in Sacramento – he’s shooting 56.0 percent from the field, slightly above his 53.4-percent career mark. He’s averaging 6.4 rebounds, precisely his career mark.
What has been a bit of a surprise is his shot-blocking. Though he came to the Warriors with a well-deserved reputation as a subpar rim protector, averaging 0.77 blocks per game, his 1.27 blocks per game project to be his best season by far.
When I asked how he accounts for the rise in blocks, Cauley-Stein paused for a few seconds, said he didn’t know and then explained that he mostly plays in a defense that accentuates his paint presence.
“That’s the whole thing,” he said. “Is the 5-man in the paint? If he’s not, you’re probably not going to get a block.”
Blocks, however, do not provide the satisfaction as another statistic rarely associated with 7-foot centers.
“I get juiced off steals,” he said, not concealing his fondness of the subject, “because I’m not supposed to get steals.”
Cauley-Stein’s 32 steals rank second on the team, behind only Green’s 33. The big man has researched and evaluated the impact of steals vs. dunks and concluded steals are more valuable.
“Most of the time when I get a block, it will go right back into their hands and they’ll lay it up,” he said. “If I get a block, it goes right back into their hands and they dunk it. I got a block. I got a stat, I guess, but they got a bucket.
“But with steals, it normally translates into a 3 or a dunk. I be trying to scheme on them steals.”
Having spent most of his career with the struggling Kings, it might be premature to assume Cauley-Stein is destined to be average at best – even though there are times when he looks the part. He definitely wants to be a player no one expect him to be.
If state of mind matters, he’s in the right place to summon the best of himself.