Willie Cauley-Stein is ready to lead a young Kentucky team
Kentucky coach John Calipari believes that if you want to be good at something you have to learn to love it. And last year he wanted his 7-foot freshman center, Willie Cauley-Stein, to be good at reading. So he created a book club for the two of them and gave Cauley-Stein a series of texts to absorb and discuss. Cauley-Stein dutifully read Calipari's offerings -- The Energy Bus, God Never Blinks, The Little Book of Talent -- and periodically shared his impressions with his coach. For Cauley-Stein, who wasn't in the habit of reading much outside of class assignments, it was an eye-opening experience. He was particularly taken with the stories of people persevering through adversity that he found in God Never Blinks. "That book gave me a different perspective on life," he says.
That was Calipari's short-term goal. And as for the bigger picture, a new love of reading and learning -- Cauley-Stein now tucks into bed every night with a tome of thought-provoking prose, right? "Um, no," he says. Big Blue Nation can take heart, however, because Calipari's other attempt at sparking long-lasting enthusiasm in the laid-back Kansan has been a success. After initially reeling from the shock of the hard work required to get through workouts and practices in Lexington, Cauley-Stein has embraced the basketball grind. "You learn how to do it, then you fall in love with it," he says.
Moreover, after struggling last season to embrace the leadership role thrust on him after Nerlens Noel went down with a torn ACL, Cauley-Stein is ready to be "that go-to guy," he says. "I want to be one of our leaders that guys can look up to and talk to. Last year I wasn't really ready to do that. It's one of the biggest reasons I came back. I wasn't ready to leave on the note we ended on."
To be clear, Cauley-Stein doesn't see the Wildcats' anemic NCAA title defense of last season -- the 21-12 record, the fourth-place finish in the SEC; the NIT first-round flame-out against Robert Morris -- as the disaster some do. "Obviously we came up short, but I think a lot of good things came out of the season," says Cauley-Stein. "Two players got drafted in the first round. We won 20 games, and any time you win 20 games -- well, outside of Kentucky, any time you win 20 games, that's a good thing."
Yet he expects much more this year, from himself and from his teammates, a group that includes another flock of five-star freshmen who are expected to return the NCAA title to Lexington. For his part, Cauley-Stein has been honing all aspects of his offensive game, "from guard skills to banging in the post," he says. He picked up some footwork chops at the Nike big man camp and has been working on his reliability from both 15-feet out and right under the basket, where Calipari expects him to draw double teams every time he touches the ball. As for free throws, which he made at a dismal 37 percent clip last year, "I always work on those," he says.
He has also added polish to his defense, which was already a strength. "He's not the shot blocker that Anthony Davis or Nerlens or Marcus Camby was, and he may not be the shot blocker that [incoming freshman] Marcus Lee is," says Calipari. "But he can guard any position, so on pick-and-rolls, he can switch. That's of great value. The NBA is really into analytics right now, and a nimble seven-footer who can guard all these positions and who is improving -- Willie's going to be off the charts."
Cauley-Stein likes the idea of being an outlier. "I feel like I'm a different kind of player," he says. "I don't mean that in a cocky way. But what seven-footer runs like a guard, guards like a guard, but is a post player? I want to be the first one, the best one, of that type."
In his tiny, no-stoplight hometown of Spearville, Kans., Cauley-Stein was something different: A towering, biracial kid with a talent for drawing and a package of physical gifts -- speed, coordination and quick hands and feet to go along with his height -- that made him a sensation in most sports he played. As a young child he had lived with his mom, Marlene Stein, off and on in Dodge City and Oklahoma before finally settling with her parents, Val and Norma Stein, in Spearville (pop. 773), 17 miles west of Dodge. (Cauley-Stein says he has a relationship with his 6-foot-7 dad, former Dodge City Community College and Pitt forward Willie Cauley, who now lives in Florida, but their in-person contact is not frequent. Two years ago he added "Stein" to his name to honor the maternal side of his family.) "Spearville was like your ideal small town; you'd play outside until the street lights came on," says Cauley-Stein. He played kickball, rode his go-kart, hung out at the pool and indulged in serial sports fantasies. "When I was really young, I played baseball, so I thought I was going to be a major league baseball player," he says. "Then I started playing football and I thought I was going to the NFL. Every sport I took super serious. I want to go pro in this."
Yet what Spearville High football coach Matt Fowler recalls about Cauley-Stein's approach to sports was less focused and more childlike joy. "I'm kind of a jokester, and a lot of times in practice when I would come into the huddle to say something, it seemed like Willie was waiting for it," says Fowler. "He would have this grin on his face, or he'd already be laughing. I'd say, 'Willie are we okay?' He'd say 'Go ahead, Coach, call the play,' and he'd already be dying back there. He was a real joy to be around."
When basketball season rolled around, that became Cauley-Stein's favorite sport. In middle school, he played point guard. Even after a seven-inch growth spurt took him to 6-9 early in high school, he often brought the ball up the floor. Before his sophomore year, Cauley-Stein spent the summer playing for the Mo-Kan Elite squad in Kansas City, staying in nearby Olathe with the family of teammate Shavon Shields, whose dad, Will Shields, had been a 12-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Chiefs. After Cauley-Stein spent one more year at 90-student Spearville High, where he admits his approach to school was "lazy", his family decided he needed a more structured academic environment. So they sent him to live with the Shields family and attend Olathe Northwest with Shavon. Under the guidance of Shields and his wife, Senia, Cauley-Stein learned how to study -- or else. "I didn't really have the option to mess around," he says. "I got grounded if I didn't get the right grades."
He got pushed out of his comfort zone in sports, too. "The best way to describe Willie in high school, he was like a high-bred bird dog that hadn't been on a lot of hunting trips," says Olathe Northwest basketball coach Mike Grove. "His raw athleticism was incredible. But his skill sets were just not polished. When he came to us, I tried to make him into more of a post player. That was something he wasn't really comfortable with because he hadn't practiced that a lot."
In football, he wanted to play quarterback, the position he had played as a freshman at Spearville High, which played eight-man football. But after sitting out his junior season because of state transfer rules, Cauley-Stein became the tallest receiver most people in those parts had ever seen. Despite constant double and triple teams, he made 64 catches for 1,265 yards and 15 touchdowns and earned first-team all-state honors. "Watching him fly down the sidelines was the craziest thing," says Shavon Shields. "You wouldn't think a guy that size could move that fast."
Cauley-Stein was a good defensive back, too, though Calipari didn't know how good as he watched one game from the sidelines with a shiver of dread. "He went up to tackle a guy and I was closing my eyes because I'm thinking, he's going to get hurt," says Calipari. "But he did what a 5-9 guy would do -- he rolled and took out the guys legs. That made me laugh."
Though Cauley-Stein had D-I potential in football, he chose to pursue basketball, on one of the most scrutinized teams in the sport. "When I first signed with Kentucky, I was uneasy about whether I belonged," he says. "I wasn't a McDonald's All-American. I'm from Kansas, and not a lot of players come from Kansas. But once I got here I realized, I can play with these dudes. That helped my confidence."
His freshman season went better than many fans expected for such a relatively unheralded player. His 8.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, his team-high 62 percent shooting and his 59 total blocks (seventh all-time for a first-year Wildcat) earned him All SEC freshman team honors. But the doubts crept back during the season-ending game against Robert Morris: In 36 minutes, Cauley-Stein had nine points (including just one made free throw in four attempts), four rebounds, a block, four turnovers and two personal fouls. Long-nurtured plans to jump to the NBA disintegrated. "After we lost the game, I felt super uneasy about myself," he says. "I had a really bad game, and I thought, I don't know if I'm ready to go to the pros yet. I feel like if we had won that game and won a couple more games after that, I would have left."
He returns, eager to delve into his studio art major and lead a team that includes six incoming McDonald's All-Americans into the forest of towering expectations. Credentials aside, Cauley-Stein has been impressed by the focus newcomers have shown in summer workouts. "You can tell they're on a mission," he says. "Especially after watching us last year, they know this is a business. We're not here to mess around."
Well, it's not all business. Focusing on one sport for the first time in his life has had many payoffs for Cauley-Stein. Thinking back to the jubilance he was known for in high school, he says, "I have felt that joy a lot playing this summer. I feel different."
Some might call it love.