With players on campus and the new season just around the corner, CoachCal.com will be profiling UK’s five newcomers, Julius Mays, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel, in an exclusive CoachCal.com “Meet the Wildcats” series. Next up is Cauley-Stein.
illie Cauley-Stein is the first to admit he wasn’t ready for Kentucky when Kentucky was ready for him.
When John Calipari’s staff called him at this time last year, right after the final tournament of Cauley-Stein’s AAU summer circuit, Cauley-Stein was a budding basketball star. At 7-foot, 225 pounds, Coach Cal’s staff saw a big man who could run the floor and block shots. They saw potential and a need, a forward who could provide depth in lieu of the departures of Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones when they decided to head to the NBA.
What they didn’t see – what the simple confines of a basketball game on a recruiting trip can’t reveal – was a player who was still searching for his confidence and a drive to be even better. The talent was there along with physical attributes that few in the country could match, but Cauley-Stein wasn’t ready for the big time when the biggest of all the programs in the country called for his services.
“Then,” Cauley-Stein said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com, “I don’t know if I was ready to come here.”
Ready or not, here came Cauley-Stein.
If Cauley-Stein wasn’t ready for the primetime, it was, in part, because he grew up as far away from the limelight as possible.
Since the third grade, Cauley-Stein was raised by his grandparents, Val and Norma Stein, in a town the opposite of what he’ll face in Rupp Arena this season. Nicknamed the “City of Windmills,” Spearville, Kan., seemed to have as many windmills as it did residents (population less than 800).
Other than the windmills, the only thing that stuck out against the Kansas horizon in those days was Cauley-Stein.
Even if Cauley-Stein wasn’t 7 feet back then, he was different from everyone else because of his skin color, including his white grandparents, and his height. It didn’t bother the young boy growing up, but now he can certainly tell a difference between where he came from and where he is now.
“You just don’t know anybody (here),” Cauley-Stein said. “In a small town, you’ve got that comfort like you know what’s going around the block. Here you don’t know what’s going on with your neighbor.”
Cauley-Stein’s humble beginnings would ultimately be the reason he would stay in Kansas City when he wanted nothing to do with moving after his sophomore year of high school, and it would be the final factor in picking Kentucky over his other suitors, Alabama and Kansas State.
“Alabama was nice, don’t get me wrong, I loved their campus and everything,” Cauely-Stein said. “We went to a football game and their fans are crazy, but once I came here, it was like a whole other level. They didn’t even know me but once they did, it’s like boom, they’re all over you. And then like 20-something thousand at a scrimmage was crazy. I’ve never seen that before. I went to K-State’s after Kentucky and it was just like no, this is not going to happen, I’m going to Kentucky.”
In a short period of time, he’s gone from a kid who felt comfortable in a small-town world to a man who is ready to embrace the most pressure-packed fan base in college sports.
“It feels like the movie Friday Night Lights when everyone is like ‘Are you going to win state?’ ” Cauley-Stein said. “You don’t know. We want to, but this expectation here is huge.”
Cauley-Stein’s acceptance of the big time took a move to the big city, a future Hall of Famer and a college coach who knew just the type of motivation Cauley-Stein needed.
Long before Cauley-Stein popped up on UK’s radar, Cauley-Stein was forced into a move he wanted nothing to do with.
With his grades sagging, his mother, Marlene Stein, and his grandparents believed that without some sort of change in Cauley-Stein’s life, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to qualify for a Division-I school.
Cauley-Stein had become close with a friend on his AAU team, Shavon Shields, so they moved him 300 miles east to Kansas City to live with the Shields. Shavon’s father, Will Shields, was a 12-time Pro Bowler with the Kansas City Chiefs, just the type of figure to insert some structure in Cauley-Stein’s life.
“In the beginning I absolutely hated it,” Cauley-Stein said. “I almost wanted to be like, ‘Nah, I don’t even want to go D-I, I just want to stay home.’ I went to kindergarten with all those people, so it’s like you’re moving two years earlier than you want to. … I didn’t want to be that far from home.”
Cauley-Stein didn’t have a voice in the matter, and he was headed to Olathe Northwest High School after his sophomore season to live with a football legend. Cauley-Stein had no idea about Shields’ credentials and didn’t realize he was going to be under the command of a former 315-pound NFL guard.
“He was a scary dude, I’m not going to lie,” Cauley-Stein said. “You don’t see many guys like that where I come from. He was a big dude. I didn’t want to cross his path.”
Making matters worse, Cauley-Stein couldn’t do the two things he loved the most. Cauley-Stein had fallen in love with football and basketball and was looking forward to moving from 8-man football to 6A football, the highest classification in the state. He was devastated to find out he was ineligible his junior season of football and the first four games of basketball because of a state transfer rule.
“You kind of want to see where you are and then they say you can’t play,” Cauley-Stein said. “Once I couldn’t play, I would go to all the games and just sit there and be like, ‘Man, I should be playing right now.’ It just eats you inside. Once basketball came, it was the same. Our team didn’t do very well at the beginning and I was like, ‘I could be out there helping them.’ It was just an awful feeling.”
The athletic exclusion could have turned a difficult academic situation into a dire one. Without two things he loved, Cauley-Stein could have given up and fallen victim to a city that featured more friends and more distractions.
Will Shields wouldn’t let him. Rather than talk to Cauley-Stein about his athletic career or encourage him to wait until next season, Will Shields focused strictly on academics.
“It was all about getting an education,” Cauley-Stein said. “We rarely talked about sports until it came time to move or time to commit somewhere. Even then, when we were talking about committing, it was all about what has the best program that you want to get into.”
Eventually, Cauley-Stein grew to love Will Shields like a father. He credits him with instilling the discipline and mentality to make it to college.
“That family helped me mature a lot,” Cauley-Stein said. “Before, I didn’t really care. That was my whole mentality. I could get away with stuff back home; there you couldn’t get away with anything. You had to do stuff the right way.”
Remembering his roots
Cauley-Stein never lost sight of where he came from.
He was in constant contact with his mother in Oklahoma when he lived with his grandparents, and he spoke to his grandparents and mother at least three times a week when he moved in with the Shields.
But as Cauley-Stein rose in both the basketball and football ranks, he worried his family would think he turned his back on them for greener pastures. It was ultimately their decision to move Cauley-Stein east, but he didn’t want people thinking his change in scenery was the only reason he was doing so well.
“I don’t know if they feel like that, but I feel like I kind of pushed them aside and did my own thing,” Cauley-Stein said.
To honor his mother and grandparents for everything they had done for him, Cauley-Stein made the decision this spring to add the “Stein” to the end of his birth name of Willie Cauley.
“I just wanted to let them know that they’re still there, that they’re still my family and stuff,” Cauley-Stein said. “I did that for them.”
Letting go of his love
Spearville, beyond its windmills, was known for its love of America’s pastime. According to Cauley-Stein, kids in Spearville dreamed of playing baseball, and his grandparents were baseball people, so Cauley-Stein grew up a pitcher.
He eventually got away from it towards the end of his middle school years and started hitting the hardwood in fifth grade, but it never looked like basketball was his future sport. By the time he entered high school, he was infatuated with football.
“From junior high all the way to high school, I was like I want to go to college to play football. Then I grew a lot,” Cauley-Stein said. “I grew like seven inches in the summer (between eighth grade and ninth grade) and they were like you should probably focus on basketball.”
Once Cauley-Stein found out Coach Cal really wanted him, he thought about giving up football altogether. The risk of injury could have derailed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Kentucky.
“Everybody was like with the opportunity you have, you don’t want to get hurt,” Cauley-Stein said. “Well, I could get hurt walking down the street. It’s just fate. I’m going to do what I want.”
With the blessing of Coach Cal, Cauley-Stein played his senior season at Olathe Northwest and, literally and figuratively, stood out. As a 7-foot wide receiver, no one could contend with the passes that were thrown at or above his head.
The worry was that the smaller players would, intentionally or unintentionally, take him out at the knees because of the height disparity. Cauley-Stein said it was never a problem because of his speed.
“I didn’t get hit a lot, I’ll just tell you that,” Cauley-Stein said. “I didn’t really get hit a lot unless it was like more than three people on me, and at that point you’re just getting tripped or drug down. There was never a time where I just got hit head on. If that was the case, I wasn’t getting hit; I was going to hit somebody else.”
Few players have played in the NFL standing 6-9 or taller, but one has to wonder why with the numbers Cauley-Stein put up in his lone season at Olathe Northwest. By his count, he finished with more than 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns. He blocked three field goals without even jumping.
“I blocked one my first time ever doing it,” Cauley-Stein said. “I didn’t really want to do it anymore. It wasn’t too easy, but it was weird. When people take pictures, you’re like this much taller than everybody else. Everybody was down here so it just looked awkward.”
Cauley-Stein was told he broke several career records in just one season.
“I was wondering if I was here for four years what it would have been like,” Cauley-Stein.
Why Cauley-Stein isn’t playing football at UK remains a mystery to some, but he said the thought of being a two-sport college athlete never crossed his mind after he committed to Kentucky. Cauley-Stein said he never talked with Calipari about it, nor did he speak with UK football coach Joker Phillips.
“It would be cool, but it would be too much to do,” Cauley-Stein said. “It would be a lot to do. I remember doing an interview with one of the local guys and they said something about (playing both sports). I was like it’s a little too late for that. Maybe if it was later on before I committed talking about football than I might have considered it, but after that I had already committed to basketball and was already set on pursuing it.”
‘Whatever it takes to exceed expectations’
With football in his rearview mirror, Cauley-Stein took to the basketball court this past spring, flourishing at times and teasing at others.
The potential for Cauley-Stein to be an elite-level big man has always been there, but the confidence didn’t come along until he committed to Kentucky. When he finally put his signature on the national letter of intent last fall, Cauley-Stein said it signaled a change in his mentality.
Cauley-Stein finished the year ranked 40th in Rivals’ final rankings, which some said was low by Calipari’s impeccable recruiting standards, but watching him compete against players ranked higher than him in Kentucky’s practices, he looks far from a project that some people are assuming he will be.
“Then, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play yet,” Cauley-Stein said. “I had committed there, but was it a great decision for me because of how hard (it is)? Back then I didn’t really want to work to do anything. Now I want to get better and I want to prove to the world I’m not overhyped.”
It’s obvious that some of his football skills have translated over to the basketball court. Running like a gazelle, he finishes first in a lot of the team’s sprints and possesses agility that people his size shouldn’t have. He has great hands, can guard guards, slither past thicker forwards, and run in transition.
Cauley-Stein always had the ability to do those things, but it took Calipari’s positive reinforcement to bring out the best in him. The Josh Harrellson transformation taught Coach Cal that every player has to be coached differently, and Cauley-Stein is one of those guys that needs the right buttons pushed to really flourish.
When Calipari raved about Cauley-Stein in June to the press, Cauley-Stein said it raised his expectations.
“He does a really good job of, when you do something right, he’ll tell you,” Cauley-Stein said. “If you do something wrong, he’ll tell you. It helps a lot confidence wise. A lot of the game is confidence, so if he’s pepping you up about something good, you’re going to keep doing that just so you can get that compliment again. Before you know it, you’re really good at doing whatever it is that he’s telling you to do.”
One can sense Cauley-Stein’s confidence growing with each dunk and each practice under Calipari’s tutelage. Although the offense is still in its early stages, it’s clear Cauley-Stein will play a major part in it because of his freakish athleticism and ability to finish around the rim.
“My mentality wasn’t right back then,” Cauley-Stein said. “Now it’s right.”
A little more time in the weight room, continued work with Kenny Payne on his hook shot and a few more months of practice, Cauley-Stein could be poised for the big time.
If nothing else, he’s ready for it.
“Before I thought I was a project too,” Cauley-Stein said. “Now, we only have 10 guys plus walk-ons, so you’re going to get playing time. Now it’s kind of on my shoulders that I need to go out there and perform. People are expecting you to perform now, so I’m going to do whatever it takes to exceed expectations.”