Mavs' Cauley-Stein: 'Carlisle Made Me Fall In Love With The Work'

Dalton Trigg

When the Dallas Mavericks traded for Willie Cauley-Stein in late-January this past season, owner Mark Cuban considered his team lucky to acquire the former No. 6 pick in the 2015 draft for only a late-second round pick, calling the transaction "a steal and a half" for the Mavs.

But while Cauley-Stein played a relatively limited role in his first season in Dallas, he envisions bigger things for himself - and continued guidance from Mavs coach Rick Carlisle.

"It’s night-and-day compared to how I came up in the league, to having coach Carlisle (now),'' Cauley-Stein told us of his pleasure with Carlisle "tapping into'' a more expanded version of himself. "Now I get to work at a craft and learn the game of basketball at a different level. 

"It’s made me fall in love with the work of the game.''

Because Cauley-Stein is a 7-0 product of Kentucky, and because he's 27 and a former No. 1 pick from the 2015 NBA Draft, he is, in a sense, bridging a time of change in the NBA. Carlisle and his use of 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis as a perimeter weapon - Rick talks of "the geometric'' advantages of it all - is a new way of doing things.

Cauley-Stein believes he's blossoming from having been asked to do things "the old way'' a 7-footer did ... to this "new way.''

“When I first got traded (to the Mavs), I really got to tap into shooting 3's, corner 3's, trailing 3's and pick-and-pop situations,'' he said. "I’ve been working on that for a long time, so it’s kinda cool that now it just gets to slide in like a puzzle. I get to get the team’s confidence in my shooting ability ... It’s a whole different ball game when the team thinks that when you shoot it, it’s going to go in. The coaches are all for it. 

"When it’s like that, it’s just a different feeling. Doing different skills as a big man like that, you know, it’s rare.

Cauley-Stein, who declined to join the Mavs in the NBA bubble last year due to the birth of a child, will be under contract in Dallas for one more season at $2.3 million if he chooses to accept his player option, and it seems as if that’s the way he’s leaning at the moment. 

“If it helps you, I bought a house here in Dallas,” said Cauley-Stein when asked about his upcoming player option. “I bought a house here in Dallas, so I’m here, I’m chillin’. I’m in the ‘D.’”

Cauley-Stein’s presence here can truly be a "steal and a half'' if what he envisions for himself here - and what he sees on film of himself - comes true.

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Said Willie: "I watched a video from two months ago, and I’m like, ‘Holy s---, I’m handling the ball now. It’s really bouncing, it’s really moving’. And my shot, I’m not thinking about it anymore. That’s how you know you’re really on to something, when you’re just doing it unconsciously.''

The world is of course full of centers who want to be guards, and actors who want to be singers, and singers who want to be athletes. But Cauley-Stein's self-vision makes sense if the Mavs want to "tap into'' all he can be.

"It’s a different dynamic – what I think I am, and what I know I am, is different from what I’m having to play,'' said Willie, who last year, in 13 games for the Mavs after the trade, averaged five points, five rebounds and one block per in just 12 minutes per game. "I’m playing the center role, but I’ve never been a center in my (mind) or my body style. I feel like I’m just working out a role instead of playing the game of basketball. It’s a difficult task, because some of the stuff that I do naturally, it counters what, as a big man, you’re supposed to do. 

"So I’m really having to re-craft my game around what the center role is changing into, and I want to change with that, and not be one of those guys (where it’s like), ‘This is the only thing we want you for’. I want to be able to play the game of basketball.''

Carlisle's Mavs offense would seem to have room for such a player - a center who is not "just a center.''

Said Cauley-Stein: "I don’t want to have to go to the baseline and wait ... I want to be into the mix, too, where I’m coming off (screens), handing it off, picking-and-popping, shot-faking and driving and throwing it to him for a screen. 

"I’m still doing the same things, but I’m being involved.”

It's "the new way.'' It's also "the Mavs way.'' And Willie Cauley-Stein's desire to make it work with coach Rick Carlisle might be the start to making it all work together.