- How will the Kings recover from the DeMarcus Cousins trade? The stigma in Sacramento? "We just have to win," according to Willie Cauley-Stein.
“No f---ing way!”
That was Willie Cauley-Stein’s first reaction when he heard the Kings had traded DeMarcus Cousins in February. Cauley-Stein was driving with his manager, who broke the news to the young center in the car. Almost immediately, messages of support started pouring in for Cauley-Stein, who would be elevated to a starting role because of the trade.
“I got 500 text messages from friends and family saying it was my time,” Cauley-Stein told The Crossover earlier this month. “I was sitting there like, ‘Damn, I wasn’t expecting to get this opportunity for another two years.’”
In his first game after the Cousins trade, Cauley-Stein scored 28 points and picked up 10 rebounds, quickly taking on a leadership role on a young team. The Kings entered a new era after the All-Star break last season, and with the addition of some know-it-all vets (Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, George Hill) and a big draft night (De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles), Sacramento had its best offseason in years in 2017.
The Crossover caught up with Cauley-Stein, currently the Kings’ longest-tenured draft pick, about how he’s prepared for his new role, Sacramento’s front office, and how he expects his team to compete in the loaded Western Conference.
Rohan Nadkarni: What have you been doing to get yourself ready for this season?
Willie Cauley-Stein: I had to get my mind into a different role. This year I get to be the guy in a sense so I took the time to mentally prepare for that. Doing a lot of self-work. At this level you have to be mentally right. You can’t just go out and hoop. You have to be in an assassin mode. I want the ball in my hands when it counts. I worked on a lot of shots, trying to expand my game to be a stretch four. I don’t want to be a plain five. I’ve been doing a lot of guard work, shots off the dribble, shots from 15-17 feet. I’ve been working on everything.
RN: How much pressure is on you now to be the leader of this team on the court?
WCS: The pressure is on my team in allowing me to do those things. I’m working on it every day. Them believing I can do it is the pressure. I know I can do it. I should’ve had my game expanded in college. But at Kentucky, you have 10 dudes doing the same thing. So now it’s my time to fall into my role. So now it’s finally time to show the world I’m not just a rim runner. I got some skills I can build on, I can be an all-around player.
RN: What effect does it have on you mentally to be looked at as the leader?
WCS: Everything is on your shoulders. When you’re losing it’s on you, winning, anything in between, it’s on you. Mentally, you have to be right. Even if it’s not because of you, the world will say it’s you. So not giving a s--t what the world thinks, that’s the only thing you can do.
I have a mental coach, which is super cool, but it’s also kind of eerie at times. I love her to death. I talk to my mental coach once a week. When the season starts it will be two or three times a week. I have to be mentally right every time I take the floor. I’m trying to stay in the moment. I can’t control the future or the past. I want to be able to Influence everybody else. Hopefully we can make something happen in the West.
RN: What’s it been like dealing with all the turmoil in the Kings’ front office the past couple years?
WCS: I’m more or less being business minded about it. I’m not going to care. I’m going to do my job. Do what you have to do because it’s a business. We’re headed in the right direction for now. They made the changes in the front office. It doesn’t affect what I do at all. I have a really good relationship with everyone, and we’re trying to take my game and the team to the next level. They want me to be a leader. It’s a good culture shift we’re trying to do.
RN: What was it like coming in as a lottery pick with someone like Boogie already at your position?
WCS: Well, I think that I needed to go through that. I needed to learn from Boogie. I needed to learn from the guys ahead of me, it made me stronger mentally. I realized, I’m good enough to play with these guys. It made me more hungry. It made me more hungry than if I came here and it was given to me. I had to work for that spot. I was in the gym early and late. It made it that much more special to me. Now, I’ve earned the right to have a voice, to shoot the ball at the end of games, to make plays, to make decisions.
RN: How is a young team like yours going to compete in such a loaded conference?
WCS: I go through that daily of, “How is this going to work?” We’re so young, we don’t have any expectations. We’re the underdog. We can sneak up on people. I think of it as this, at Kentucky, we had targets on our back all the time. Underdogs played us very hard and it was super annoying. We got their best every night. Teams are going to get our best every night. We are going to hold our own on the court.
RN: What’s it like getting to play with Vince Carter?
WCS: It’s crazy. He’s a legend. He’s a walking legend. I remember the Vince Carter Raptor days. Playing all the video games with him. Playing against him is one thing, having a chance to learn from him is a whole another level of excitement. I get to spend every day with a walking legend. Z-Bo too. I’m so excited I get to learn from two people who are in the position I want to be in.
RN: How do you shake the label the Kings have gotten the last few seasons?
WCS: I mean, really, you’re not going to shake the label. They’re still going to think we’re a joke, a laughingstock, until we start winning games. Then they have no joke. We have to make them believe. The front office knows what they’re doing. That goes into the whole culture change, since the trade, since the summer, that’s the start of not being considered a joke. Trading the dude that is scoring 40 a night with 15 rebounds, like how do you trade your best player? It is what it is. But it’s the next man up. It doesn’t matter what is. We just have to win.