By BEN BASKIN
Special to ZAGSBLOG
NEW YORK — First it was Anthony Davis. Then came Nerlens Noel. Now it seems that sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein is taking the defensive reins for the third-ranked Kentucky Wildcats and is continuing the lineage of great shot-blockers that John Calipari has coached.
On a night when Davis fractured his left hand at Madison Square Garden, the 7-foot Cauley-Stein had a career high nine blocks on Sunday night in a 79-65 win over Providence at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In a game where the Wildcats led by only four at halftime, Cauley-Stein was the difference maker.
“To have nine blocks in a game like this, that’s big-time, big-time,” Calipari said.
Jason McIntyre over at The Big Lead had Cauley-Stein pegged at the No.15 overall selection in his most recent mock draft, and several NBA scouts weighed in on Cauley-Stein’s upside going forward.
“Great athlete,” one NBA scout told SNY.tv. “Still a project at the offensive end. Can really run the floor for a big. Shot-blocker and rim-protector.
“I do not think he is nearly as talented or has the upside of [Joel] Embiid from Kansas or skilled like [Mitch] McGary from Michigan. He’s the third-best center in college.”
A second NBA scout disagreed.
“He is starting to figure it out,” he said of Cauley-Stein. “His upside is probably better than both of those guys.’
Cauley-Stein’s nine blocks in a single game are more than Davis had in any game he played for Kentucky, as the now-Pelican center’s career high in college was eight, which he recorded on two separate occasions.
Through eight games this year, Cauley-Stein has totaled a whopping 31 blocks. Compare that to 36 for Davis and 25 for Noel, and it’s clear that he is in some pretty rarefied company. Making it more impressive is that Cauley-Stein has started in only four of Kentucky’s eight games this year.
“Before in the past, I was hesitant,” Cauley-Stein said. “Now I’m just going. Coach said, ‘Don’t even worry about it, just try to block every ball.’ So that’s what my game plan was coming in to the game, just try to block every ball.”
Cauley-Stein came close to doing just that, and for any ball he didn’t block, he was in the area and affected the shot. His defensive aggression was a spark plug for the Wildcats on a night when star freshman Julius Randle struggled a little bit, putting in only 12 points on 4-10 shooting.
“When Willie picks it up on defense it just gives us that extra energy boost that we need,” said freshman James Young, who had an efficient scoring game with a team high 18 points on 5-7 from the field.
It wasn’t just Cauley-Stein’s defense that stood out, however. His offensive game—which has been questioned by many— was strong as well, as he put in 15 points, hitting seven of the eight shots he attempted.
There was a two-minute stretch early in the second half, when the game was still close, where Cauley-Stein recorded two offensive rebounds and followed them up with put-backs.
Then, with 16:48 left and Kentucky holding a seven-point lead, the 7-foot center had the play of the night when he blocked two consecutive shot attempts in the post and then ran the length of the court, beating everyone to the hoop, and finished with a thunderous two-handed slam.
“I was extremely hype,” Cauley-Stein said about the sequence. “It was a good feeling.”
“Man, to play the way he did, and to run like a gazelle,” Calipari said “Did you see him run the court? Oh, my gosh. If we’re able to run, and our big guy runs, and we can just throw it at the rim. I’m proud of him. He’s come a long way.”
Cauley-Stein played behind Noel last season but took over the starting duties when Noel went down with an ACL injury and impressed many, as he averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 blocks, and 2.1 blocks per game.
While many predicted he would be a first-round pick in the 2013 draft, Cauley-Stein chose to come back for his sophomore season, in large part to shed some of the negative labels about his game that had been placed on him. And after a career night, it seems to have been the smart decision.
“He’s playing harder longer,” Calipari said “He’s never played this many minutes and he never played that hard this many minutes. But he’s practicing that way. He’s pushing himself and he’s pushing through comfort levels.”
Photo: USA Today