NBA Draft: Love of the game pushes Willie Cauley-Stein


NBA Draft: Love of the game pushes Willie Cauley-Stein

Willie Cauley-Stein received pre-draft questions he expected he would from NBA front offices. Except one.

The 7-foot center was asked about the tattoos sprawled across his arms, chest and neck. He was asked why, as a sophomore, he dyed his hair bleach blonde. Teams inquired as to the type of person he would be in an NBA locker room, or if he had problems with certain people in an attempt to reveal the type of person they'd be investing millions of dollars in should they select him in next week's NBA Draft.

Cauley-Stein answered those questions, admitting some of his earlier life choices - like the hair - were made because he was "young and dumb."

But one question caught the Kentucky center, expected to be drafted in the top-10, by surprise: What would you be doing if you weren't playing basketball?

"I don't know," Cauley-Stein deadpanned, recalling his answer to NBA teams. "I would never think about not hooping. I'm always thinking about doing something with hoops or what I can work on today that's going to make me better for tomorrow."

Cauley-Stein spoke from experience, not just giving a cliched answer to prove his love of the game. As a sophomore he had suffered a broken foot in late March, forcing him to watch from the sidelines as his Wildcats completed an NCAA Tournament run to reach the National Championship, ultimately falling to Shabazz Napier and Connecticut. That time on the sideline - 21 weeks, to be exact - was all he needed to prove he needed basketball in his life.

"I got to feel what it would be like if I didn't play," he said at last month's NBA Draft Combine. "And I can't imagine not playing."

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The good news for "WCS" is that he won't have to worry about not playing for quite some time. The 2015 consensus first team All-American was a rare breed for John Calipari, staying three seasons in Lexington after an inconsistent freshman campaign and the ankle injury in 2014. But that additional year - in Kentucky's case, two years - allowed him to sculpt his game, become a leader for a freshman-laden roster and, without knowing it, improving his draft stock.

He averaged 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 25.9 minutes per game, anchoring the country's best defense alongside expected No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and expected lottery pick Trey Lyles in the frontcourt. He was named both the SEC and National Defensive Player of the Year despite not leading his team in either blocks or rebounds, a statement to his worth on team defense. Cauley-Stein forced passes due to his length and quickness on pick-and-rolls - he averaged 1.2 steals per game - kept teams from paint touches with his interior defense and complemented the rest of the Wildcats. Those were lessons he learned staying three years.

Whereas some of his younger teammates are considered more of unknowns due to their one year of collegiate experience, Cauley-Stein has 105 games, nearly 2,600 minutes and eight NCAA Tournament games to his highlight reel.

"To show that maturity level I didn't have last year if I was to enter the draft, now I'm one of the older dudes in the draft and I get it," he said. "I understand everything. I understand the game, I understand the process, I understand what it takes to be an elite player."

It's what he's hoping to prove at the next level. Already proven as arguably the best defensive player in his class, playing at Kentucky forced him into a niche where he wasn't asked to do as much because of the talent surrounding him. And though that may be the case on whichever team selects him, Cauley-Stein believes his game can and will expand.

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He's drawn plenty of comparisons to Tyson Chandler, a former Defensive Player of the Year and NBA champion in 2011. Chandler has made a career of anchoring defenses in New Orleans, New York and Dallas and playing around the rim on offense. Cauley-Stein may even have more lateral quickness than Chandler, playing a lot like the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan. Even if Cauley-Stein never develops an offensive game - he shot 59 percent in three seasons, yet on just 5.6 field goal attempts per game - his defensive worth will be enough to justify his selection, potentially as early as Orlando at No. 5.

It's something he understands, too. Though he'd like to show off a midrange game he says he's working on and an expanded post game, he's more focused on continuing to sculpt his dominant defensive presence that is going to carry him next season and beyond.

"Get really good at the stuff I'm actually good at already. Get better on defense, be a dominant defensive force" he said, "and then over time, over the next three to four years, be a player that you can throw the ball to and make some magic happen."

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is fed up with being underestimated and he’s going to do something about it. The Bulls guard has been having a strong pre-season so far but is looking to improve his skills as a two-way player.

“I’m just tired of people talking shit about my defense,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that on the defensive end.”

“I’m taking more pride in it,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.”

If you think LaVine sounds confident, he has good reason to be. Last season LaVine was one of only ten players to average at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, making him stand out as an elite player in the company of MVPs and All-Stars. LaVine’s personal triumphs, however, were overshadowed by the Bulls abysmal 22-60 record last season.

So far, this preseason LaVine has been looking better on defense, averaging 1.3 steals per game through three preseason games. Any improvements on defense will greatly help LaVine’s All-Star case.

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3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Sunday confirmed this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Kris Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-of-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob," Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what he is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished Sunday's win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and Co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine, besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team, is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season, too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.