UNION, N.J. —
Had Willie Cauley-Stein made a different decision, he would be eligible for tonight’s NBA Draft in Brooklyn.
And the 7-footer from Kentucky might very well have been taken in the lottery alongside his former teammate, projected No. 1 pick Nerlens Noel.
Instead, Cauley-Stein opted to return to campus for his sophomore season and now he wants to improve as a player, help Kentucky challenge for another NCAA championship and become a top pick in the 2014 Draft.
“Look, we [are] here for another year, which is not often,” Cauley-Stein told SNY.tv Wednesday at the Nike Big Man Skills Academy at Kean University.
“Make it worth your coming back because you skipped out on something big. Us coming back, we skipped out on millions of dollars so you might as well make it worth your stay.”
Kentucky was well-represented at the Nike Academy.
Karl Towns Jr., a 2014 recruit from St. Joe’s-Metuchen, arrived for the event’s final day on Wednesday and was measured at 6-foot-11 1/2 with a 7-3 wingspan in shoes.
And Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in last year’s NBA Draft, was in attendance because the Academy had his and Amar’e Stoudemire’s name on it.
Cauley-Stein matched up against Davis on Tuesday and said he kept the Pelicans big man from scoring.
“I mean, it’s Anthony Davis, he’s a pro for a reason,” Cauley-Stein said. “For the most part it was good. He didn’t score on me so that’s a good thing.”
Asked if he won the matchup, Cauley-Stein added, “He’s just a different kind of guy, he’s a different player. He didn’t score.”
Cauley-Stein said he opted to return to campus to improve as a player and focused on that this week while battling other college bigs like Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, Arizona’s Brandon Ashley, UNLV’s Khem Birch and the St. John’s duo of JaKarr Sampson and Chris Obekpa.
“We all are going to be pros in the near future so it’s good to see the guys that are coming up,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was just a good learning tool just to see where I was.”
Asked what he was working on, he said: “Just mastering my craft whether it’s a jump shot, take somebody off the dribble, getting stronger. I mean that’s basically what I’ve been working on all this summer. Just mastering my craft inside the paint.”
As for tonight’s NBA Draft, if Noel gets chosen No. 1 overall, he would be the third Kentucky player chosen tops overall in the last four years. John Wall went No. 1 in 2010 and Davis last year.
“I’m really excited for him,” Cauley-Stein said of Noel. “I hope he does get picked No. 1 just because he was my teammate and I built a pretty good relationship with him. And it will be really good for him if he goes No. 1.”
While Noel will be gone from Kentucky next season, Cauley-Stein and fellow big man Alex Poythress return. They will be joined by perhaps the greatest recruiting class ever featuring fellow big men Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee.
But Cauley-Stein sounded as if he’s not ready to hand over a starting job to the new guys anytime soon.
“Oh yeah, it’s not going to be a walk in the park for them by all means but it’s good just to have that competition,” he said. “They’re pros, too, so you’re against pros every day so it’s a good look for you.”
As for the impending departure of Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer, possibly to Gonzaga, Cauley-Stein didn’t have a strong opinion.
“I really don’t know too much about it but we’ll see how it plays out,” he said.
A year from now, Cauley-Stein will likely be in the NBA Draft in New York, and so will Randle and several other Kentucky players.
Before then, the goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament after losing in the first round of the NIT at Robert Morris — and challenging for the school’s second championship in three years.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we can do it,” he said. “If we come together we should be fine.”