LEXINGTON, Ky. — 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. He didnt 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 cant be doing this. By the end of your senior year, youll have the North Carolinas, the Dukes, the Kentuckys, the Ohio States interested in you.
Initially, Cauley-Stein scoffed. That wasnt his goal, but he dedicated himself to basketball a little more you know, just in case.
Now, Cauley-Stein is the starting center for a Wildcats team many predict will win the NCAA championship. Hes surrounded by arguably to 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 is there, Cauley-Stein said. I thought about leaving after last year, but Ive never won a championship in anything, all the way back through junior high. Ive never made it to a final except sub-state. I want a championship before I move on, and Ive 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-Steins 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. Hes averaging 5.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 assists through three games this season.
I didnt realize how skilled he was when I first got here, Kentuck 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 didnt know he was that fast either.
Cauley-Stein was labeled soft by many scouts who watched him in high school, but hes shed that label and earned a hard-nosed reputation among Kentuckys 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 dont 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, hes going to let you do it. Its 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. Hes able to influence the game pretty well. Hes altering shots and even forced us at times to dribble back out to the perimeter just because hes 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.
Its not about how long he plays in college, Shields said. Its understanding what his potential is and maximizing that. It looks like thats what hes doing.