Singular Focus: The Leap (Ep. 1)

Willie Cauley-Stein, Center / Sacramento Kings - The Players' Tribune

I did two really important things in the last few weeks: I got a neck tattoo. And I added five inches to my vertical. I’m not your average basketball player. I’m a little bit different. Because of that, the most common question I’ve gotten from GMs during the draft process is, “Do you love basketball?”

For some reason, people love to project things onto your appearance. There’s definitely one thing I love more than basketball, and it’s proving to people that I can do the things they say I can’t do. The story on me going into this draft is that I’m an elite defender with a raw offensive game. In my head I’m thinking, How would you even know what I’m capable of offensively? At Kentucky, I shot about 25 jumpers my entire career. I didn’t major in statistics, but that’s a pretty small sample size, bruh.

It wasn’t my role to be an offensive force at Kentucky, but if you come and watch my workouts now, I think it’s pretty clear that I could’ve been a whole different player. When you play within a system where 12 dudes are future pros, it’s kind of an unspoken rule that you don’t step outside of your role. When I watch my college game film now, I see defenders playing way off me, and it’s like, “Dude, what are you doing? That’s an easy bucket!” I’m trying to rewire my brain to think, Shoot that. Drive that. Be aggressive. Because there’s no time for hesitation in the NBA.

I’m not a traditional big. Honestly, when I hit my growth spurt in high school, I felt like a guard trapped in a center’s frame. The mixtapes I used to watch weren’t Dwight Howard or Shaq, they were Kevin Durant, Melo, CP3, Kyrie Irving and Josh Selby. I was trying to be like those guys. It’s weird being in that position because in high school you’re just the biggest dude so the coaches are like, “Okay, you’re the center. Post up.” But what if you have all these other skills? Your mindset might not necessarily to be The Big Dude. Your mindset might have been to be Melo, because you saw him torch KU in the ’03 Final Four. When you’re a 7-footer, you get pigeonholed because of your appearance. Athletically, I feel like I’m closer to Kevin Durant than a traditional center. I can defend all five positions and run the floor like a guard. So I want to bring that positionless basketball mentality to the NBA and really change the game.

I’m not just saying that. That’s why I wanted to do this Singular Focus series, so you could be a fly on the wall during my workouts and hang out with me and my boys during the downtime and really get to know me. The real me — not just a paragraph you read about me on a mock draft on the Internet.

Willie Cauley-Stein

I’m in a unique situation because I’m not getting drafted to be a scorer. I’m getting drafted because I can defend 1 through 5, rebound and block shots. If I do that, I’ll have fulfilled the analysts’ expectations. But what if I add a little jumper? Or get really nice at free throws? Now you’re on the path to greatness. Athletically, I really believe that I’m capable of anything I put my mind to. If I wanted to learn the piano, I could get pretty cold at it in a year. I’d practice every day until it became second nature. Ball handling and shooting, same thing. If I practice every day, I’m going to get cold at it.

I’ve added 20 pounds of muscle to my frame since college. And college was like three months ago.

That’s what’s so beautiful about the NBA. It’s your job now to do that stuff. All it takes is one move. You can get really, really nice at one move and it can take you to the next level. Just look at Tim Duncan’s bank shot from the left side. How many times do you think he’s practiced that specific shot? I bet at least 50 times a day every day for 20 years. Let me pull up the iPhone calculator. That’s 365,000 shots. I don’t care how many times you’ve practiced defending that move, Tim is stupid nice with it. Everybody knows it’s coming, but you can’t stop it. Same thing with LeBron’s turnaround move on the baseline. It’s perfected to the point of being unstoppable. That’s where I want to get.

As a defender, you have to start back at the bottom in the NBA. That’s what’s so funny to me when people act like I’m this dude who’s been getting by on pure athleticism. I didn’t come into college being a cold defender. I was OK. I had spurts when people were like, Dang, this dude looks really good. And I had times when I realized that there was plenty left to learn. I worked at my craft and by the time I was a junior, all of a sudden people deemed me a superior defender. Everyone’s like, “He’s a pro-ready defender” and I’m looking at these dudes in The League like, “Wait, I’m supposed to defend him? For real?” So that’s why I’m absolutely grinding right now. I’ve added 20 pounds of muscle to my frame since college. And college was like three months ago. I’m not there yet, but I’m coming up.

Oh yeah, and the neck tattoo? It’s a tribute to my friend Blake, who passed away from cancer a few months ago. He was 9 years old, a year younger than I was when I watched Melo get drafted. Now I’m fulfilling that dream, and I’ll never forget how lucky I am to be here. Come along for the ride and get to know me.

Episode 1: The Leap

Episode 2: Breaking Barriers

Episode 3: The Team Workout

Singular Focus: Breaking Barriers (Ep. 2)

This is Singular Focus, a three-part video series chronicling Willie Cauley-Stein’s training as he prepares for the NBA Draft. In this second installment, Willie heads to Venice Beach to reset his mind after pushing himself in a tough individual workout.

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