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April 25, 2013

Cauley-Stein returns with 'dominating mindset'

There are no guarantees in NBA Draft projection, and Willie Cauley-Stein didn't need one.

Still, as the Kentucky forward did some stock-shopping in an effort to determine where he might land if he opted for a one-and-done exit from the Wildcats, he found any sort of clarity elusive.

"I heard anywhere from (picks) eight to 10, 15 to 20, 22 to 25," Cauley-Stein said this week. "And you're like, 'That's the whole dang scale. That's everywhere.'"

It was a wider range than Cauley-Stein was comfortable with, a bigger gamble than he was willing to take. The more he thought about it, the less ready he felt to bolt to the NBA.

And so he'll be back for at least his sophomore season with the Wildcats, a kid ready to develop on the basketball court if not yet set to grow up off it.

"You don't get these years back anyway, so why grow up sooner than you have to, pay for stuff, taxes?" Cauley-Stein said. "I'm not trying to pay for taxes, for one. I'm still a kid. And I just like the college life, going around like a celebrity."

Though he's one of the most discernable celebs on campus - at 7-foot, 244 pounds, he's hard to miss - Cauley-Stein has a plan that could render his game almost unrecognizable.

"(I want to) become more of an all-around basketball player, a guy that can step out, shoot threes, hit the 15-footer, take people off the dribble," Cauley-Stein said. "Just become more of a complete dude, not just a guy that's going to sit in the paint. That's not the way that I wanted to play coming in, it just ended up being like that."

That's in part because Cauley-Stein was shifted into a pure low-post role when Nerlens Noel suffered a season-ending knee injury in February. Prior to that injury, Cauley-Stein sometimes shared the court with the 6-foot-10 Noel, who's headed to the NBA after one season.

The two also clashed on the practice floor. Battling in the post with Noel, perhaps college basketball's best defender, helped Cauley-Stein refine a post game that was raw when he arrived at Kentucky.

He still has strides to make in the paint, but Cauley-Stein made significant strides there - and elsewhere - over the course of his freshman season.

"He's made so much progress in his game, and just even mentally," Noel said. "Early on Willie wasn't too sure about things, but as the season went on he's gotten so much more confident and just so sure of himself that there were just times in practice where he just dominated. You'd see flashes. Willie's come a very long way, physically and mentally, and he's really come into his own as a player."

There still are steps to take.

Cauley-Stein said coach John Calipari has asked him to be "more of a vocal and hands-on leader" as a sophomore, stepping into a more commanding and demanding role on a Kentucky team that will add at least eight freshmen.

"This year, I got put in a situation where I had to step up and lead, but I wasn't really ready to do it," Cauley-Stein said. "Coming in, I was real hesitant about everything that I was doing. I didn't think I was in a position to try to lead guys that were more hyped than me or that were supposed to be playing better than me."

He grew into that role - particularly after Noel went down - but neither as fast nor as completely as he'd have liked.

Cauley-Stein had a solid freshman season, averaging 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. His improvement was slow and steady, but Cauley-Stein said a switch flipped after the Cats lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

"I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year," Cauley-Stein said. "I want to be the best in everything I do. Before it was kind of like, 'Eh, I'll come in here and try to do.' This time I want to come in here and do it. I don't want to try to do it."

If he does, he could see a more narrow window of draft projections this time a year from now.

"Another year, Willie can be one of the best big men in the country, definitely," Noels said. "I'm sure he will be. Willie is a freak athlete. He's 7-foot, he's fast, quick, he has all the intangibles to be great. Next year, I'm sure he's going to dominate the collegiate rankings and move on to bigger and better things."


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