Cauley-Stein emerging as leader for No. 1 Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Willie Cauley-Stein has not been the typical Kentucky recruit.

The 7-foot junior has made that clear in many ways, the most obvious that he stayed for a third season with the top-ranked Wildcats after arriving with a one-and-done label. Cauley-Stein decided to return even though he was projected as a first-round NBA draft choice. Watching last spring’s NCAA championship game loss to Connecticut from the bench with an injured ankle convinced him he wasn’t ready.

”I knew I didn’t want to go to the league being hurt,” he said.

Cauley-Stein is now a possible lottery pick. His impressive all-around performance has established him as the leader of a Kentucky team facing expectations of going unbeaten. Playing in the middle of the first of the Wildcats’ two tall platoons, he enters Tuesday’s Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi ranked second on the team in scoring (10.1 points per game), rebounding (6.6) and blocks (1.7).

Most notably on a Kentucky squad where playing time comes in 4-minute segments, Cauley-Stein has made a team-high 24 steals and averages a team-best 24 minutes per game.

”I wouldn’t say I’m pleased, but I can see improvement in what I’m doing,” Cauley-Stein said. ”I can that what I’m doing is starting to work, so whatever I’m doing, just keep on doing it.”

That’s a scary prospect for opponents who must find an answer for the Olathe, Kansas, native on both ends.

He’s shown wicked shot-blocking instincts, in which he seemingly comes of nowhere to swat opponents’ attempts. Cauley-Stein has also displayed uncanny skills in picking off passes – even against smaller, quicker guards on the perimeter.

Those thefts usually result in dribbling down the floor and finishing with a dunk, most recently in last week’s victory over No. 4 Louisville. But Cauley-Stein’s signature game came last month against No. 9 Texas, when his 21 points, 12 rebounds and five steals in a team season-high 33 minutes left Longhorns coach Rick Barnes envious.

Asked what he thought of Cauley-Stein’s play, the coach said, ”I wish he was on my team, that’s what I think of him. … He affected the game in every way he could affect it.”

Cauley-Stein’s game has expanded beyond blocking shots as his maturity has grown. A media favorite because of thoughtful responses to many subjects, he has also had odd moments: He played one stretch last season with his hair dyed blond and joked about staying in school because he wasn’t ready for adult responsibilities such as paying bills and taxes.

Cauley-Stein remains cerebral but is more resolute this season, a big-picture perspective gained from watching his team play without him in the title game and a summer exhibition tour while he recovered. Working out before scouts from all 30 NBA clubs during a preseason combine in Lexington also provided an idea of what he needed to improve physically and mentally.

”It was just a cool opportunity, being able to showcase your skills in front of every NBA team,” said Cauley-Stein, whose game has been compared to the Dallas Mavericks’ Tyson Chandler and the Houston Rockets’ Dwight Howard.

”I feel like the worst decision would’ve been to go early, not be ready and be stuck,” he added.

Calipari said then the scouts ”were so impressed with Willie, all the agility stuff and the feet and all the other things.”

Experience hasn’t always been the Wildcats’ strong suit because of a series of one-and-dones, but Cauley-Stein was among several players to change that trend by returning for more seasoning and the pursuit of a ninth national championship.

Cauley-Stein’s development and leadership are reasons Kentucky might be projected as a team for the ages.

”There are big expectations being here and I understand that, having gone from the worst of Kentucky basketball to being the best,” he said. ”I don’t think about it or look too far ahead, but (the expectations) are understood.”