He’s part of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class at Kentucky, yet center Willie Cauley-Stein knows he is not perceived as being the same type talent as classmates Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress.
Guess what? That perception suits him just fine.
“I love that I am under the radar. I have always been that person who has stuck out. Now that I am not, I¿kind of get to sit back and watch everybody else. I am not the person that sticks out. And I get to be the underdog for once. That is good. I love it,” Cauley-Stein said.
Kentucky coach John Calipari sold the 6-foot-11, athletic Cauley-Stein on coming to UK based on the potential he had.
“He (is) still saying every time I see him, ‘You don’t know how good you will be.’ I haven’t practiced as much as I am going to or hit the weights like I will. He’s always, like, telling me I won’t know how good I can be. That stuck in my head when he said it the first time and I knew the coaches were real good at what they do, and then watching Anthony Davis, you kind of, like, think I could be that guy. Embrace it, too,” Cauley-Stein said.
Calipari spent most of the summer touting Cauley-Stein’s potential and says he has been the most pleasant surprise of the new players.
“First of all, I¿never saw him play a high school basketball game. I saw him play football a bunch. I went to the high school and he had a tennis racquet. We are walking around and I said, ‘Kid, do you ever play basketball. Do you ever think about that sport?’ He is a kid that would play wiffle ball,” Calipari said. “I told him when I recruited him he had no idea how good he could become.
“He and I were sitting in the lodge the other day and I said, ‘Are you kind of amazed (at what has happened with your skills and strength)?’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘You are better than you thought, aren’t you?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ He has taken on a sport for the first time where he is really focused on this sport. He has gained 20, 25 pounds. His skill set has absolutely improved. He’s fast, nimble. You see him on the football tapes.
“He gained ground on Nerlens because (Noel) was not here for those eight weeks of conditioning, weight training and 16-hour workouts (this summer). That put him on a different level than Nerlens. I am good with that, because now when Nerlens catches up you will see improvement in his game.”
DraftExpress.com analyst Matt Kamalsky isn’t sure Cauley-Stein is the unknown that Calipari is touting him as being.
“Calipari's words certainly don't hurt, but I think we've moved well past the point where you can come to UK under scholarship and be an under-the-radar NBA prospect,” Kamalsky said.
“The question most evaluators had about Willie Cauley wasn't so much if, but when he would begin to use his size and mobility to be a consistent presence on both ends of the floor. He's a huge target at the rim, and will be an effective finisher. The keys to how he is perceived at year's end will be his development as a post-up threat offensively and his defensive fundamentals.”
Cauley-Stein admits he knew little about Kentucky’s tradition when he signed with the Wildcats.
“I knew nothing. Absolutely nothing. I only knew they were in the tournament every year, and deep in the tournament,” he said, verifying that his knowledge of Kentucky basketball went back only to the start of the Calipari era.
However, he seems to have embraced everything about UK basketball from the extra work to bonding with teammates to enjoying the attention from Big Blue fans.
“You have to have fun with it. If you are scared to do it, you are going to struggle with it. But if you kind of embrace it like the fans are going to be crazy, it’s great,” said Cauley-Stein, who came to UK’s 2011 Big Blue Madness and enjoyed meeting John Wall. “Personally, I can’t wait for that, because it just gets you going. When the fans are into it and it is crazy, your adrenaline starts pumping and you don’t even realize it or know what you are doing. You are out there going 100 percent and going crazy.
“If you don’t embrace things, life is not going to be that interesting for you. You can’t just sit back and be like, ‘I really don’t want to do that.’ Just like conditioning. You wake up in the morning and you are like, ‘Oh, man, we have conditioning today.’ You dread it all day, it is going to be worse. You get in here and you are slow and don’t want to do it. If you wake up and it’s like, ‘Got conditioning today,’ you kind of embrace it. Get it done and it is only 20 minutes of your day. Have fun with it, and it is not bad.”
Perhaps that’s why he’s at Kentucky, because he liked Calipari’s no-nonsense approach to recruiting.
“He didn’t try to (lie to) me (during recruiting), and I don’t feel like he did that. He told me this was going to happen and I am not changing. He told me a lot of guys will (lie to) you during the whole process,” Cauley-Stein said. “They are nice, but once they have got you and you sign that letter (of intent), they change.