Willie Cauley-Stein joined the Mavericks last season after advanced-stats-hero Dwight Powell was lost to a torn Achilles. His playing time was brief; he appeared in 13 games before Covid cut the season short.
The birth of his first child prevented him from joining Dallas in the bubble, but the front office apparently saw enough from the athletic big to bring him back on a 2-year, $8.2 million contract. In a small, but not minuscule, sample size he did have some bright spots last year. In those 13 games, 1.46 points per possession as a roll man place him in the 93.5 percentile. In transition, he was elite; his 1.67 PPP was good for fourth in the league. Again, small sample sizes, but you can see the gaps in this roster a player like Cauley-Stein could fill.
Has he come to peace with being a good role player? Back in 2017, Cauley-Stein had an interview where he likened his size and skill to that of fellow 2015 draft-ee Kristaps Porzingis. Fast forward 3 years to today, and you can see where their careers are at. Porzingis played on the first year of his new max deal while Cauley-Stein, it can be argued, did well for himself to land an $8M contract after opting out of his final year.
This isn’t a put down of Cauley-Stein. It’s unquestionable that he has the size and athleticism to be a very good NBA player. He might even be the fastest center in the league (hence, the pristine fast-break numbers). However, what a player wants to be can very easily get in the way of what a player can be. Is Willie at a place where he can buy into being a first off the bench, super-sub kind of guy? Not unlike the heralded career a player like Montrezl Harrell has had.
Best Case Scenario
Willie buys in and becomes an elite bench roll man and defender. It’s a good sign that Powell seems not to be suffering any ill-effects from Achilles recovery. He looked as springy as ever in his preseason time. That said, even a 100% healthy Powell isn’t the defender Cauley-Stein is. Not to mention Cauley-Stein’s rebounding. Powell grabs 13.2% of available defensive rebounds while Cauley-Stein pulls in 20.2%.
Heck, in a perfect world, we may even see some decent floor spacing if the 3-ball we saw Willie shoot in the preseason is for real. Powell, a 29.3% 3pt shooter bless his heart, hasn’t been able to become even a minor threat from deep despite years of trying to develop that shot. Cauley-Stein seemingly spent the entire off season taking threes and posting video of it to social media. To his credit, he’s made half of the four attempts he’s taken in the preseason.
That’s a marked improvement for a man who’s career numbers from three are 4/19. The kind of numbers you’d see from a single bad James Harden game. Taking one to two threes a game and making them at a league average pace would be gravy. The role the team likely wants Cauley-Stein to play hews much closer to the kind of things that make him an interesting Powell replacement. Rebound, run, catch lobs, play defense.
Worst Case Scenario
Luckily, the success of this team is not likely to hinge on the rise or fall of one Willie Cauley-Stein. A healthy Powell, Porzingis, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic gives Coach Rick Carlisle plenty of front court pieces to mix and match. Adding a productive Willie Cauley-Stein to that mix is a nice-to-have.
It’s true the team may be a little more dependent on Cauley-Stein early as Porzingis works back into being game-ready. In that scenario, if Cauley-Stein can’t hold his own as a rotation player, it certainly doesn’t help the Mavericks get off to a good start to the season. Though, it’s doubtful that we’ll be looking at a loss early on and saying “if only Willie Cauley-Stein was playing better…”
Willie Cauley-Stein has an opportunity here. He’s the exact kind of player who, if he plays hard and excels at his role, the Mavericks can allow to shine and show other teams in the league that WCS has a place. If Willie would rather set his sights on becoming a below-average 7-footer who would rather shoot and miss threes than battle for rebounds and push the pace on fast breaks, then there’s not likely to be many minutes for him this season.