- Mississippi State Bulldogs - January 17, 2017 - 7:00 PM EST - Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss. - ESPN
John Calipari has coached a lot of players who have gone on to become college and NBA superstars.
Marcus Camby, Derrick Rose, John Wall and Anthony Davis are just a few of the players that come to mind when one thinks about the talent Coach Cal has mentored over the years.
The man who has coached 27 NBA players, 15 draft picks over the last three years and three No. 1 selections (the only coach who can claim that feat), believes Willie Cauley-Stein has the potential to be as good as any of them.
“Willie Cauley has a chance at being one of the better players that I’ve ever coached,” Calipari said. “It’s not delusional at all (if you) understood how far he had come, understood how far he needed to go, understood he could have been a first-round draft pick.”
Understanding how far Cauley-Stein has come gives promise of where he could ultimately go.
It wasn’t long ago that Cauley-Stein was a relatively under-the-radar recruit in Olathe, Kan. A football star with the athleticism to play just about any sport, Cauley-Stein, as Calipari tells the story, was carrying around a tennis racket when Coach Cal visited him at his high school during his senior year.
Most recruiting services labeled him a four-star prospect in basketball and thought he had the potential to be a good college player because of his 7-foot frame, but he was undoubtedly the most unheralded recruit in Kentucky’s 2012 signing class.
That all changed last season when Cauley-Stein embraced the game, his talent and love for basketball.
Once Cauley-Stein got to UK and got under the tutelage of Coach Cal, he quickly budded into a promising forward with the potential to go to the NBA down the road. That growth was accelerated when the so-called “project” became the Cats’ most important player when Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending injury.
NBA analysts saw what he could do when basketball was his primary focus, and many of them projected him as a lottery pick had he decided to turn pro after one year. Cauley-Stein ultimately chose to come back to Kentucky for a number reasons, chief among them was a chance to win a national title.
“(Last year) just left a bad taste in your mouth,” Cauley-Stein said last month. “I feel like something’s empty and I want to fill it. Next year we’re going to have a great opportunity to do that.”
Cauley-Stein headlines a group of five returners who will join the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class to form what should be a national championship contender.
Although Cauley-Stein was just a small piece of the puzzle a year ago, he’s expected to be one of the key contributors in Kentucky’s success in 2013-14 after averaging 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in his freshman campaign.
With the extra focus on basketball, Cauley-Stein could be one of the nation’s best players next season. Calipari believes he is only begun to tap his burgeoning potential because he never fully committed to the game until recently.
“Not everybody loves playing the sport,” Coach Cal said. “They’re just so big so they were supposed to play, so they play. When you find those guys, you run from them. Believe me, they’re at every level of basketball.”
Cauley-Stein is not one of those guys, but he had to be immersed in basketball before he realized it how much he loved it. He was doing so many other sports in high school that his attention was never focused solely on basketball.
“These kids are young kids,” Calipari said. “They’re 18. It’s your own child learning to crawl, learning to walk, learning to talk right, learning to be mannered, socially learning the way. What makes these kids different? ‘Well, they’re bigger.’ Really? So now a kid’s 6-10 so he’s different than your child? That’s why I (talk about) the patience of this, the galvanizing process.”
The patience of the process certainly qualifies for Alex Poythress, who announced with Cauley-Stein that he was coming back for his sophomore year.
Perhaps no player experienced more ups and downs than Poythress did in 2012-13, but Coach Cal said his decision to return for his sophomore season shouldn’t be viewed as an unsuccessful freshman year. After all, he averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds, the second- and third-best marks on the team, respectively.
“It doesn’t matter to me if you take one, two, three or four years,” Calipari said. “Does it really matter? I just want you to get it so you’re ready to go on and have success. Some kids, (it takes longer). Terrence Jones took two years. Darius (Miller) took four years. Now you look at Darius, do you know what they say? Anthony Davis told me, ‘Coach, you won’t believe this: We play Darius Miller as a stopper on defense.’ Think about that. He’s tougher now. He’s more aggressive. I watched him in the gym in there. He makes every shot now. Well, he was now ready to go on to have success.”
Coach Cal said the standards are higher at UK because of the success the program has had in putting players in the pros, but he said success shouldn’t be determined by how quickly a player can get there.
“If it takes another year, what’s the problem?” Calipari said. “What if it takes him three or four years? What’s the problem? ‘Well, we’re not on the 25-year-old model here and if you make it in two or three years, what’s wrong with you?’ What? The only kids held to that standard are here. We’ve probably done it to ourselves here, but (it’s not right).”
Calipari said Poythress was a little overwhelmed in his first year, but that was OK; he was a freshman. Ultimately, Coach Cal thinks he would have still been a first-round draft pick, but Poythress “wasn’t delusional” and wanted to come back to change and improve his game.
Poythress will have that opportunity in his second year, and Calipari believes he’ll flourish with the daily competition in practice next season.
“If he (changes) and the competition brings out the best in him, it is scary how good he’s going to be,” Coach Cal said.