At 7-foot, 244 pounds, UK sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein is unlikely to be mistaken for your average college student.
But if you expect Cauley-Stein to act like the stereotypes associated with big-time college athletes, you will probably be disappointed.
That is just fine with him.
“I love being different,” Cauley-Stein said in a one-on-one interview with KyForward in September. “I love doing different things. I love being the talk of the town of being different, of not being that average basketball player that everybody thinks of.
Willie Cauley-Stein elected to return to UK for a sophomore season despite being projected as a possible first-round NBA draft pick. (File photo by Jon Hale)
“What I really love is I look like a basketball player except the way I dress. I dress differently than everybody else. Once they talk to me, they’re like ‘Yo, you’re so different. You’re not like what we though you were going to be like.’”
It did not take long for UK fans to learn Cauley-Stein might not be your average basketball player.
Prior to the second game of his freshman season, Cauley-Stein informed reporters he had no idea what they were talking about when faced with repeated questions about Christian Laettner’s famous shot that sent Duke to an overtime win versus UK in the 1992 NCAA Tournament.
During his freshman season Cauley-Stein described himself as a hippie and exhibited an introspective attitude in interviews. Never one to avoid speaking his mind, Cauley-Stein has gone on record with his love of being a local celebrity, his fight to avoid “tearing up” after watching a new intro video at Rupp Arena and the pride he takes in getting dunked on.
Prior to his freshman season, Cauley-Stein was open about the fact he dealt with confidence issues when playing alongside his more highly touted classmates for the first time. Following his freshman season, Cauley-Stein said his mentality had changed, taking on a more dominating mindset.
Considering he excelled in multiple sports at a small Kansas high school, perhaps it should be no surprise that Cauley-Stein most enjoys his interactions with fans when they have noting to do with basketball.
“A lot of guys want to talk to you about basketball. I’d rather talk to you about something different,” he said. “That’s my life. I don’t feel like I want to talk about that all the time. I live it, so I don’t feel the need to try to show off with it.”
As much as he enjoys his life away from basketball, Cauley-Stein knows his work on the court this season will play a major role in determining his future.
He was projected by many as a possible first-round pick in the NBA draft following his freshman season, but elected to return to UK for a second year to hone his skills and make a run at a national championship.
According to his coach, Cauley-Stein is still tapping into his vast potential.
“Last year we needed Willie to do stuff that he wasn’t capable of,” Calipari said in a roundtable interview with local media in September. “Now, when Nerlens (Noel) was here, he looked really good because when he didn’t look good I could take him out and put Nerlens back in.
“Then Nerlens went down and what happened? Now he’s got to play 35 minutes, and you see every wart, ever kink, everything. We needed him to do more and he wasn’t capable of doing it yet.”
With seven former McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster, the Cats are unlikely to need Cauley-Stein to carry the team by himself at any point this season. The chance to go against some of the best players in the country in practice was one major attraction for Cauley-Stein in his decision to return to school.
Through summer workouts his matchups with freshman center Dakari Johnson have already earned rave reviews from Calipari and his teammates.
“You know, it’s almost going to make Willie mad,” Calipari said. “We did some stuff yesterday, and all the sudden Willie got mad. Then how he’s going to have to play came out.”
Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game as a freshman. (File photo by Jon Hale)
Cauley-Stein disputes Calipari’s assessment that going against Johnson made him angry.
He has a simpler explanation for the exchange.
“Dakari didn’t make me angry. It was more that Coach Cal made me angry,” he said. “‘Like, what do you mean? I’m trying to do what I know to do, and I’ve got to learn to battle against him. You act like I had somebody to go against like him last year.’
“I didn’t, so now it’s like a another thing of adversity that I have to go through. Once I learn how to do it, it’s only going to get better.”
Angry or not, Cauley-Stein has already impressed many of his new teammates. Several of the freshmen listed him as a surprise despite watching him play on television last season.
“I didn’t know he could actually guy up that fast, up and down the court,” said freshman guard James Young. “He has a great mid-range shot.”
“I didn’t know he was that athletic,” said freshman guard Aaron Harrison. “He can jump from anywhere.”
Cauley-Stein’s early battles with Johnson have reinforced in his mind that he was not ready to leave for the NBA. He calls Johnson a “true NBA center,” who at 7-foot and 265 pounds, presents the type of physical challenge that even Noel did not when healthy.
While he feels confident he made the correct decision to return to school, watching the draft was not an easy task for Cauley-Stein.
“It kind of made me upset, but I’ll be there some day,” he said.
Until that day, Cauley-Stein is content to grow on the court and off it.
Despite his size and his celebrity-status in some ways Cauley-Stein is not that different from other UK students.
He at least has a common complaint shared by students throughout the ages.
“I swear, I’ve spent like $1,000 on parking tickets and (parking) boots since I’ve been here,” he says with a laugh. “But I finally got a parking pass, so I’ll never have to deal with it again.”
In the weeks leading up to the 2013 UK men’s basketball media day KyForward is previewing the season with a series of stories about the Cats resulting from interviews with players and head coach John Calipari from September. You can see all the stories in the series here.