Thirty years ago, Willie Cauley-Stein would have been returning to Kansas City.
Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot center from Kentucky who graduated from Olathe Northwest in 2012, was chosen by the Sacramento Kings on Thursday with the No. 6 pick in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“It’s just a blessing being in this spot and this situation,” Cauley-Stein said. “To learn under Boogie (Kings center DeMarcus Cousins) and being in an organization that’s up and coming, a lot of young guys, it’s just cool to have this opportunity.”
The Kings played in Kansas City from 1972 to 1985.
Cauley-Stein, who joins a frontcourt that includes Cousins but no other true center, was an Associated Press first-team All-American and was chosen as the SEC defensive player of the year last season as a junior.
He is a rare defensive talent, a rim protector with the unique ability to guard any player on the floor thanks to his blend of size, speed and athleticism.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas agreed that Cauley-Stein has the ingredients to be an elite defender.
“He is an absolute freak athlete at 7 feet,” he said during ESPN’s draft broadcast. “He can run the floor with tremendous speed. In a straight line, he is hard to keep up with. He’s got a 7-3 wingspan, so he can get steals, he can block shots, protect the rim. He’s not a big-time rebounder, but he does rebound.”
Cauley-Stein, who declared for the draft with a year of eligibility remaining, grew up in tiny Spearville, Kan., and has shot up nearly a foot since eighth grade.
Before that growth spurt, he was a point guard, so he has unusually good ball-handling skills for a player his size.
“I’m talented enough to do a lot of different things,” Cauley-Stein said. “When I get to Sacramento, I’m going to work my tail off trying to become a complete player and hopefully bring a championship to the city.”
Last season, Cauley-Stein averaged career highs with 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.0 assists and also added 1.7 blocks per game.
He leaves Kentucky as the only player in program history to rack up more than 500 rebounds, 200 blocks and 100 steals.
“He’s one of the most interesting prospects that I can remember,” Bilas said.
Cauley-Stein ranks No. 2 all time in Wildcats history with 223 blocks.
Kentucky finished the season 38-1, losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. Coach John Calipari’s squad was the first team since UNLV in 1991 to reach the national semifinals unbeaten.
Cauley-Stein’s selection was part of a big night for the Wildcats.
Kentucky tied the NBA Draft record with four lottery selections — including the No. 1 overall pick by Minnesota, forward Karl-Anthony Towns; the No. 12 pick by Utah, forward Trey Lyles; and the No. 13 pick by Phoenix, shooting guard Devin Booker.
“Obviously, it’s just good for the program,” Cauley-Stein said. “It shows that a bunch of young kids can come together and still win, and at the end of the day still get drafted. There’s a lot of scrutiny on coach Cal — can’t take young guys and turn them into a team and make them win and still be for each other and get drafted and play in their dreams.”
The Wildcats tied North Carolina in 2005 with four players drafted among the first 14 picks.
With two second-round picks, Kentucky also tied the record for the most draft picks from one team with six.
Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison was selected by Phoenix 44th overall and center Dakari Johnson went to Oklahoma City with 48th overall pick.
Kentucky also had six picks in 2012, the only other instance since the draft was trimmed to two rounds in 1989.
UNLV had six players drafted during the 10-round draft in 1977.
Cauley-Stein, who shot 59.3 percent from the field in his career, averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks as a freshman and 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and a career-best 2.9 blocks as a sophomore.
On Thursday, it all added up to a payday that’s going to be north of $15 million in the near future.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @todpalmer.