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."

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stock is on the rise; just how high will he climb?

John Calipari's 2017 recruiting class featured five McDonald's All-Americans and Hamidou Diallo, a former five-star recruit who nearly jumped to the NBA the previous year. It also included a lanky 6-foot-6 point guard named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. And for the first part of the 2017-18 season, the Toronto native who played his final two high school years in Tennessee, appeared to be a nice fit off the bench for Calipari.

But something flipped. Gilgeous-Alexander was inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9 and never looked back. He played his best basketball beginning in late February to the end of the season, a span of 10 games against eight NCAA Tournament opponents. In those games Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He shot 51 percent from the field, 50 percent from deep and 84 percent from the free throw line, and added 1.4 steals in nearly 38 minutes per game for good measure. He was one of the best players in the country, and on a team with five McDonald's All-Americans, he was Calipari's best freshman.

"I knew with how hard I worked that anything was possible," SGA said at last week's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "It was just a matter of time before it started clicking and I started to get it rolling."

That stretch included a 17-point, 10-assist double-double against Ole Miss, a 29-point showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, and 27 more points in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Buffalo. Even in his worst game of the stretch, a 15-point effort against Kansas State in the Tournament, he made up for 2 of 10 shooting by getting to the free throw line 12, converting 11 of them.

It made his decision to make the jump to the NBA an easy one - that, and another loaded Calipari recruiting class incoming. He stands taller than just about any other point guard in the class and might have as good a jump shot as any. He's adept at getting to the rim, averaging 4.7 free throw attempts per game (that number jumped to 5.6 after he became a starter, and 7.5 in those final 10 games of the season. He isn't the quickest guard in the class, but he uses his feet well, is able to find open shooters due to his height and improved on making mistakes on drive-and-kicks as the season went on.

"I think I translate really well to the next level with there being so much more space on the floor and the open court stretched out," he said. "It only benefits me and my ability to get in the lane and make plays."

There's something to be said for him being the next in line of the Calipari point guards. The ever-growing list includes players like Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Murray and DeAaron Fox. It's the NBA's version of Penn State linebackers or Alabama defensive linemen. The success rate is nearly 100 percent when it comes to Calipari's freshmen point guards; even Brandon Knight averaged 18.1 points over a three-year span in the NBA.

"That’s why guys go to Kentucky," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "It prepares them for the next level. Coach (Calipari) does a really good job, especially with point guards, getting them ready for that next level in a short amount of time."

Gilgeous-Alexander didn't test or play in the 5-on-5 scrimmages, but he still came out of Chicago a winner. He measured 6-foot-6 in shoes with a ridiculous 6-foot-11 1/2 wingspan, a full three inches longer than any other point guard at the Combine. He also added, rather uniquely, that he watches of film Kawhi Leonard playing defense. Most players don't mention watching film on different-position players; most players aren't 6-foot-6 point guards.

"(It's) obviously a more versatile league and playing small ball. And with me being able to guard multiple positions, a lot of teams are switching things like the pick and roll off ball screens, so me being able to switch and guard multiple positions can help an organization."

Gilgeous-Alexander's arrow is pointing way up. He appears to be teetering near Lottery pick status, though that could go one way or the other in private team workouts, especially if he's pitted against fellow top point guards like Trae Young and Collin Sexton. But if his rise at Kentucky is any indication, he'll only continue to improve his game, his stock and eventually his draft position.

The Celtics tied MJ's and the '96 Bulls' record for consecutive home playoff wins


The Celtics tied MJ's and the '96 Bulls' record for consecutive home playoff wins

The Boston Celtics have been the surprise of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, and after last night's Game 5 win against LeBron James and the Cavs are one game away from a trip to the NBA Finals.

They've done it with some of the most interesting splits in league history for a team that's advanced this far: they're 10-0 at home and  1-6 on the road.

The six road losses are something else, but with the convincing 96-83 victory over Cleveland, the Celtics tied a record held by the 1996 Bulls for the most consecutive postseason home wins in a season.

Boston earned home wins against the Bucks in Round 1 in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7. They crushed the heavily favored Sixers in five games, earning home wins in Games 1, 2 and 5 (and their only road win in Game 3). They took the first two games of the series from the Cavaliers at home and then again in Game 5. If they can't close the series in Cleveland they'll have a chance to break the record Sunday in a potential Game 7. If they do close the series in Cleveland their next chance will be in Game 3 of the NBA Finals; Boston will be on the road regardless of whether Houston or Golden State comes out of the West.

Jordan's Bulls won 10 consecutive games during their historic 72-10 season. They swept the Heat in Round 1, winning at home by 17 and 31 points. In the second round they knocked off the Knicks in Games 1 and 2 at the United Center, winning by 7 and 11 points. After the Knicks earned a Game 3 win at Madison Square Garden the Bulls won the final two games of that series, including a 13-point win at home to clinch the series and a fifth straight home win.

The conference finals were no problem for the Bulls at home or on the road. They began their eventual sweep of Orlando with a 38-point shellacking in Game 1 at home. A five-point win in Game 2 gave them their seventh consecutive home win and they wouldn't be back at the United Center until Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

They smoked the Sonics by 17 in Game a 1 and held on for a four-point win in Game 2. Seattle took Games 4 and 5 at their place to avoid being swept, but when the series returned to Chicago the Bulls were back to their winning ways, earning a 12-point win - their 10th consecutive in the postseason - and their fourth NBA title.

Yes, the Bulls lost just three times (half as many as the Celtics) and actually won the title. Boston, of course, has plenty to do before they reach that status, and they'll do so with at least six losses. We're not comparing the two teams. Simply pointing out a record.

And if you're wondering, Steph Curry and the Warriors have simply been too good to get to 10 wins. Last year they swept all three rounds of the West playoffs, giving them six straight home wins. Then they only needed five games to beat the Cavaliers in the Finals, with three of those coming at home. So they went 9-0 at Oracle Arena before winning it all. They recently had their streak of 16 consecutive postseason home wins, regardless of year, snapped when the Rockets earned a Game 4 win on Tuesday.