It seems like just about every June, in the run-up to the annual NBA draft, reports start to circulate about one prospective lottery selection or another having some vexing condition that's giving decision-makers for teams with high draft picks cause for concern. From DeJuan Blair's absent anterior cruciate ligaments to Darrell Arthur's rumored kidney woes, from Royce White's anxiety to Jared Sullinger's back to Perry Jones III's knee, from Nerlens Noel's ACL to the feet of Joel Embiid and Julius Randle, and on and on — there's no shortage of examples of players showing production and promise on game tape and in workouts, only to see their draft stock affected by the differing opinions of teams' medical professionals.
The latest top prospect to face questions about the likelihood that his frame holds up well enough to be worth a top-tier draft choice? Former University of Kentucky center Willie "Trill" Cauley-Stein.
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As a shot-swatting sophomore, the 7-foot center suffered a left ankle injury during the Wildcats' victory over the rival Louisville Cardinals in the 2014 Sweet 16. He'd later say that the injury could have come a couple of games earlier, against Kansas State, but that he definitely "heard something 'pop' in his ankle" against Louisville, prompting an X-ray that revealed a "cracked bone/stress fracture" that required surgical repair.
The injury steered Cauley-Stein back to Lexington for his junior year, further strengthening a stacked Kentucky squad — featuring highly touted freshman big Karl-Anthony Towns, now widely expected to be the Minnesota Timberwolves' choice with the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday's 2015 NBA draft — that won its first 38 games of the 2014-15 season before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Despite putting up comparatively pedestrian numbers in coach John Calipari's "platoon" system, averaging 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 1.2 steals and one assist in 25.9 minutes per game, Cauley-Stein shined as Kentucky's defensive anchor. He earned his second straight SEC All-Defensive Team berth, as well as Defensive Player of the Year honors from both the conference and the National Association of Basketball Coaches, after demonstrating time and again his unique ability to guard all five positions on a given defensive possession.
But even though the consensus first-team All-American suited up for every game of the '14-'15 campaign largely without incident following his surgery, as the draft approaches, a handful of clubs apparently have some questions about the long-term prognosis for Cauley-Stein's wheel, according to Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:
Five separate NBA teams we spoke with all indicated varying degrees of concern after consulting with their team doctors this week, with some saying it may cost the Kentucky big man a few spots on draft night. “There is some maintenance that needs to be done there, as it's not completely clear whether the injury healed in a proper way. The pin that was inserted is supposed to be sitting at a 90 degree angle, but instead it's at 45 degrees. That, plus some question marks about his background that came up could cause him to drop a few slots.” [...]
We reached out to Cauley-Stein's agent, Rich Kleiman of Roc Nation Sports, who did not appear to be overly concerned. “Willie is not stressing about where he goes in this draft, and teams that have done their research know that there is nothing to be concerned about. Martin O'Malley, a renowned ankle and foot specialist in New York, checked his foot out last week and said he's completely fine. Doctor O'Malley is used by almost every team in the NBA, including working with our client Kevin Durant. The fracture has healed and is asymptomatic. Teams who are overly cautious may want to look into an offseason cleanup if we agreed to it, but currently Willie is 100% pain free and not limited in any way. Any team that really looks at this will have no reason for concern. Teams rely on their doctors, and we rely on ours. I told them they can call Doctor O'Malley and many have already.”
Foot issues are certainly no laughing matter when it comes to big men, so you can understand why any club entertaining the prospect of drafting Cauley-Stein — whose fly-around-the-floor-and-defend-everyone game seems predicated an awful lot on athleticism and quickness — would want to make 100 percent certain that the state of that repaired stress fracture is sound enough to invest a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract. (And before we move on: That "plus some question marks about his background" kind of slipped in under the radar there, huh?)
Cauley-Stein has often been listed by draft evaluators among the second tier of prospects in this summer's draft, a bit below the likes of Towns, Duke center Jahlil Okafor, Ohio State guard D'Angelo Russell and point man Emmanuel Mudiay, a former top prep player who eschewed the NCAA in favor of playing one year in China. With Latvia-by-way-of-Spain 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis impressing observers en route to joining that top tier, Cauley-Stein has been frequently slotted in the middle-to-latter portion of the top 10, along with swingmen Justise Winslow of Duke, Mario Hezonja of FC Barcelona and Stanley Johnson of Arizona.
Given the teams picking in that range, few of whom figure to be desperate for a big man — the Denver Nuggets just drafted Jusuf Nurkic last year, the Detroit Pistons are set with Andre Drummond, the Charlotte Hornets have Al Jefferson plus a raft of young four-five types and figure to prioritize a shooter, the Miami Heat are still celebrating the reclamation project that is Hassan Whiteside — there's an advancing belief that if Cauley-Stein gets past the Sacramento Kings at No. 6, he could fall out of the top 10. If he does, he could find a home quite quickly.
The Indiana Pacers pick 11th. Center Roy Hibbert can opt out of his contract and enter unrestricted free agency. Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird and head coach Frank Vogel said in their season-ending press conferences that they'd welcome the opportunity to play more uptempo and feature more small-ball lineups, and that the plodding, 7-foot-2 Hibbert's role would likely be reduced moving forward, which doesn't sound like too warm an invitation to opt in and stick around.
And, more to the point, that's not the only thing Bird's said this summer:
And seemingly, #Pacers prez of bkb operations Larry Bird is a BIG fan of Willie Cauley-Stein.
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) May 15, 2015
WCS on his meeting w/ #Pacers: "Larry (Bird) told me, ‘I think you’re a $100 million dollar player.’ I hear that and I’m like, ‘Really?!’"
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) May 15, 2015
All that seems like it might be worth remembering, as we attempt to sort through the myriad smokescreens and misdirections that will dot the NBA media landscape over the next few days. (For what it's worth, both Givony and ESPN.com's Chad Ford have Cauley-Stein landing in Indiana at No. 11.)
However the draft plays out, Cauley-Stein certainly doesn't seem like he's going to lack for either self-confidence or motivation. From a Q&A session with Steve Serby of the New York Post:
Q: On a scale of 1-10, where’s your swag?
A: There’s no 10. … My swag’s above 10.
Q: Why do you think your swag is above 10?
Q: You weren’t always that way, right?
A: No. You have to find yourself, I feel like. [...]
Q: I’m an NBA GM. Tell me why I should draft Willie Cauley-Stein.
A: I’m the greatest. Nah I’m playing. I just bring a unique personality and set of skills to a team. I’ve never been on a team where I didn’t get along with everybody. I feel like I make everybody better. I think I’m a rally dude. Through thick and thin, I’m going to be the same no matter what.
Q: Are you the kind of guy that’s going to have a chip on your shoulder for teams that passed on you?
A: I’m going to have a chip on my shoulder regardless, because … I think I’m the best person in the draft, so I’m going to have a chip on my shoulder ’cause I’m not going to go first in the draft, you know what I’m saying? So, I’m going to play like that, that I’m better than everybody else. I think you have to play that way.
If rumblings about the pin in his foot turn out to be little more than pre-draft indigestion and increase the size of that chip on his shoulder, Cauley-Stein figures to be one heck of a menace on the defensive end for some lucky team. We'll have to wait until Thursday to find out which one.
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