Sporting a new look but the same penchant for deadpan honesty, Willie Cauley-Stein discussed his reasoning for foregoing the opportunity to enter the NBA Draft and returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season in only the way he could.
Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game as a freshman
“You don’t get these years back anyway, so why grow up sooner than you have to, pay for stuff, taxes?” Cauley-Stein said on Monday, his first comments since UK issued a release announcing his return on April 1. “I’m not trying to pay for taxes, for one. I’m still a kid.”
The Internal Revenue Service's loss is undoubtedly Kentucky basketball's gain, as the rapidly developing 7-foot forward could very well become one of the nation's most accomplished big men in 2013-14. While rumors circulated about Cauley-Stein capitalizing on his abundant natural talent and leaving Lexington after just one season, the Kansas native maintained the decision to return was actually an easy one.
“Pretty short,” Cauley-Stein said of his deliberation. “I could leave this year, go late first round or come back next year and have an opportunity to go really early (in the NBA draft).
“Plus, you know, I enjoy school. It’s not like I was in any hurry to leave. I mean, I never thought I was going to be a one-and-done anyway, so another year didn’t really mean very much, I guess.”
Ever the type to walk to the beat of his own drummer and flash his individuality – the big man once again wore oversized wire-rimmed glasses – Cauley-Stein spurned the chance to be a first round NBA draft pick, something that even a year ago would have seemed far-fetched for the late basketball bloomer.
Not until fellow freshman Nerlens Noel went down a season-ending knee injury in early February did Cauley-Stein gain significant traction on NBA scouts' draft boards but it didn't take long for him to rocket into their collective consciousness with his rare combination of elite size and athleticism. In nine games after Noel went down Cauley-Stein averaged 9.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in 32 minutes per game.
“I heard a wide variety of things, which, that's what set me off,” Cauley-Stein said of the feedback he received about his draft position. “I heard anywhere from eight to 10, 15 to 20, 22 to 25. And you're like, 'That's the whole dang scale. That's everywhere.' I didn't feel real comfortable taking a chance on it and landing somewhere that I'm not going to be good at or ended up hurting myself (rather) than coming back and helping.”
Some theories opined that UK's freshmen from a disappointing 2012-13 season would be better served to go ahead and enter the draft rather than risk being relegated to the bench by the Cats' historical 2013 recruiting class. For his part, Cauley-Stein said that actually enticed him to come back even more.
“Honestly, for me, I think that's going to be the best thing to come out of next year because you're going against pros every day,” Cauley-Stein said. “This year was like that until Nerlens got hurt and then I was going against Brian Long and Sam Malone. You're not getting better. You're going to dominate in practice and then struggle in games. T
“his next year it's going to be a lot different and that's what I'm going to capitalize on, just going at these (incoming) dudes every day. It's not only going to make me better but make our team better and vice versa, it's going to make them better by older guys going at them.”
While Kentucky coach John Calipari has been a target for those who don't condone the one-and-done culture, Cauley-Stein is a testament to the fact not every high-profile recruit arrives in college with the intent of leaving after just one season. In fact, along with Alex Poythress' decision to return to UK, Calipari has had four highly rated freshmen return for the sophomore season in the past three years.
“I just like the college life, going around like a celebrity,” Cauley-Stein said. “In the pros it’s like that, but it’s going to be at a different level. Here, you’re that one guy that it’s kind of like everybody knows you. You go to the pros (it’s like), ‘Oh, you can tell he’s a pro but who is he?’ I like it around here where people know my name. That’s just fun.”
At the end of the day, Cauley-Stein had little incentive to leave and plenty of reasons to rewrite his ending.
“(Last year) just left with a bad taste in your mouth,” Cauley-Stein said. “I feel like something’s empty, and I want to fill it, and next year we’re going to have a great opportunity to do that.”