Kentucky sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein remembers the moment when he morphed from being just a tall kid living on the Kansas plains to a potential NBA Draft pick.
Cauley-Stein still went by Willie Cauley six years ago as a freshman at Spearville High School, about 17 miles east of Dodge City, Kan. He didn’t grow up with big-time college basketball dreams.
Instead, Cauley-Stein wanted to play quarterback at the NCAA Division I level, but he began to change his mind when former Spearville basketball coach Jerrod Stanford meted out some tough love.
“One day, I had gotten in trouble for skipping class,” Cauley-Stein said. “My coach made me run 25 suicide-type things, and afterward he said, ‘You can’t be doing this. By the end of your senior year, you’ll have the North Carolinas, the Dukes, the Kentuckys, the Ohio States interested in you.’”
Initially, Cauley-Stein scoffed. That wasn’t his goal, but he dedicated himself to basketball a little more — you know, just in case.
Now, Cauley-Stein is the center for a Wildcats team many predict will win the NCAA championship. He’s surrounded by arguably the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball and projects as a possible lottery pick whenever he decides to leave school.
“Definitely, the NBA dream there,” Cauley-Stein said. “I thought about leaving after last year, but I’ve never won a championship — in anything, all the way back through junior high. I’ve never made it to a final except sub-state. I want a championship before I move on, and I’ve never got one. This is the perfect chance to get one.”
Before his junior year in high school, Cauley-Stein left Spearville. He had befriended former Chiefs All-Pro Will Shields’ son, Shavon, through AAU connections and eventually moved in with the Shields family and transferred to Olathe Northwest.
“We were helping him get his opportunity to be seen on a bigger stage,” Will Shields said.
During his time with the Ravens, Cauley-Stein sprouted to 7 feet.
Despite catching 64 passes for 1,265 yards with 15 touchdowns as a senior wide receiver with the Ravens, basketball became Cauley-Stein’s path and, just as Stanford predicted, some of the most storied programs in college basketball history came calling.
Cauley-Stein chose Kentucky, where he averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game as a freshman. He’s averaging 5.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 assists through three games this season.
“I didn’t realize how skilled he was when I first got here,” Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle said. “I kind of thought he was like a hustle and energy guy, but when we went through individual workouts, he really surprised me with his skill — ball-handling, shooting, jump hooks. I didn’t know he was that fast either.”
Cauley-Stein was labeled soft by many scouts who watched him in high school, but he’s shed that label and earned a hard-nosed reputation among Kentucky’s fans.
“Everybody loves Willie around here, because he works hard,” said Wildcats fan Andrew Spencer at halftime of a Nov. 8 victory against UNC-Asheville. “He runs the floor as a 7-footer faster than most other guys on the floor. I don’t know if I can speak for all Kentucky fans, but I love him.”
Cauley-Stein said he finally feels free on the floor.
“What coach Cal (Wildcats coach John Calipari) does, and I love that he does this, he lets you play to your strengths,” Cauley-Stein said. “No matter what size you are, how big or small you are, if you can do something, he’s going to let you do it. It’s kind of the way I wish I would have been in high school if my coach would have let me just ball instead of keeping a leash on me. Here, if you prove you can do something, go ahead and do it.”
Against UNC-Asheville, Cauley-Stein displayed a versatile game. He was limited to 18 minutes because of foul trouble, but he finished with three points, six rebounds, four assists, four blocks, three steals and no turnovers.
“I would take one of those,” UNC-Asheville coach Nick McDevitt said. “He’s able to influence the game pretty well. He’s altering shots and even forced us at times to dribble back out to the perimeter just because he’s a threat to throw it in the stands every time you get in there.”
Finally, the big fella is blossoming, which all those closest to him — way back to coach Stanford at Speavrville — really wanted to see.
“It’s not about how long he plays in college,” Shields said. “It’s understanding what his potential is and maximizing that. It looks like that’s what he’s doing.”