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Willie Cauley-Stein's shot-blocking pace challenging Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel

Through eight games, Willie Cauley-Stein has been a slightly better shot blocker, given opportunities, than Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. It's a tough pace to keep up. (Photo by James Pennington)

Through eight games, Willie Cauley-Stein has been a slightly better shot blocker, given opportunities, than Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. It’s a tough pace to keep up. (Photo by James Pennington)


When you look at Willie Cauley-Stein—and these past few games, it’s been impossible not to—what are you seeing? Are you seeing one of the best defensive big men ever to play at Kentucky? Are you seeing the best to play for the Wildcats in the last two years? How about the last three?
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That third question is essentially the same as the first, isn’t it? Until further notice, operate under the notion that Anthony Davis—who played for the Wildcats in 2011-12, who was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft after leading Kentucky to its eighth national championship, who some at the time said was the best defensive player in college basketball since David Robinson played for Navy in the ‘80s (and, by the way, had 45 points, 14 boards and 10 blocks for the first triple-double in Rupp Arena on Jan. 25, 1987)—is the best defensive player ever to play at Kentucky.


He affected games in ways that were impossible to quantify, which is impressive considering how he also affected games in ways that are perfectly quantifiable. He had 186 blocks in his 40 games as a Wildcat, shattering the previous single-season record of 83, which Andre Riddick and Melvin Turpin shared. Davis broke that record in his 19th game. The unquantifiable was just that: How could you look back at Davis without remembering all the shots never taken, the hasty passes into clogged lanes and the third steps while panicking with Davis hovering above? He seemed to hover sometimes.


He also had a preposterously wide radius in which he could block shots; it was so wide, jump shooters had no idea they were in danger until their shot was sent back. Because of this, several of his 186 blocks were on jump shots. Some were even on threes.


Then there was Nerlens Noel, whose only season at Kentucky was cut down with a torn ACL in his 24th game. He still had 106 blocks, second-best ever at Kentucky and 23 more than any player ever had in the non-Davis division. Noel didn’t have the radius Davis had, or at least he didn’t use it the same way if he did. His defensive awareness was unique in that instead of going to the ball, he let the ball come to him and waited for defenders to leave feet and for shots to go up before he acted. To say he reacted would not be fair, because it much more often seemed like he knew what the play would do before the ball-handler did.


It made sense for Noel to play that way instead of like Davis. Davis could take more risks because his team was much better overall defensively, and he oftentimes had Terrence Jones playing alongside him (who had 68 blocks himself that season). Noel didn’t spend much time on the floor with Cauley-Stein when the two were freshmen, and the Wildcats’ perimeter defense wasn’t secure enough for Noel to leave the paint much. Noel also had 50 steals; his 2.08 steals-per-game total was the seventh-best season in Kentucky history.


Cauley-Stein profiles somewhere between the two. He doesn’t shade to the traditional as much as Noel did, and he doesn’t range out on block attempts as much as Davis did. But through eight games—an admittedly small sample size, one-third of what Noel played and one-fifth of what Davis played—Cauley-Stein’s happy medium may be the best of the three, at least in terms of blocks. KenPom.com rates shot blockers by block percentage, which site founder Ken Pomeroy defines as the “percentage of opponents’ two-point shots that are blocked by the player while he is on the court.” The formula for block percentage is:


Blocks/(Percentage of possible minutes played * opponents’ two-point attempts)


The point is to provide a formula that accounts for what a player does while he is on the floor and how opponents act with him on the floor instead of acting like all 40 minutes in a game are created equal and that any team would attack a defense the same way given differing defensive personnel.


Davis’ block percentage in 2011-12 was 13.8. Noel’s in 2012-13 was 13.2. Through eight games in 2013-14, Cauley-Stein’s is 13.9.


All that means is, Cauley-Stein is in the conversation, and the rest of the season leaves a lot to be determined. Both Davis and Noel had hot streaks during conference play that boosted their blocks numbers. Six of Davis’ eight games of at least seven blocks came once conference play started (one was in the NCAA tournament against Western Kentucky), and Noel had a six-game stretch of 46 total blocks during league play (seven, six, seven, eight, six and a school-record 12 on the road against Ole Miss, all 12 of which can be seen here).


But Cauley-Stein’s nine blocks against Providence forced him into the conversation, and his game Friday against Baylor, which ranks No. 36 in KenPom.com’s team rankings, will continue the dialogue.


For more detail comparing game-by-game comparisons between Cauley-Stein, Noel and Davis, head over to The Beat for more detailed data.

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