Willie Cauley-Stein's entrance into the 2014 NBA Draft was never a given, despite the Kentucky Wildcats sophomore's standing as a projected top-20 pick no matter where you look — and even reaching as high as the lottery, according to DraftExpress. But the 7-footer's comments following the Wildcats' loss in the national championship game — a game in which Cauley-Stein did not play after suffering a still-undisclosed ankle injury in the Sweet 16 against the Louisville Cardinals — hinted he may return.
Cauley-Stein announced Monday he would return for his junior season, and Kentucky's frontcourt in 2014-15 could be the best and deepest of any grouping in the country.
Cauley-Stein's 106 blocks as a sophomore were the second-most in school history — still well behind Anthony Davis' 186 in 2011-12, but being second behind Davis on any statistical leaderboard isn't a bad place to be — and his defensive presence is unique because of his ability to range out to the perimeter and guard any position. By the end of the year, his reputation was such that when he would switch on to a guard mid-play, guards would not even attempt to drive past him.
Still, most of Cauley-Stein's appeal as a prospect at this point is in his athleticism, which he uses it to crash the offensive glass and get easy buckets at the college level. He does not have much of a post game to speak of, which was one major concern he voiced following the national championship game when considering whether he'd go pro or come back for his junior season.
Now that Cauley-Stein is confirmed to return to school, who will join him is to be determined. In all likelihood, it won't include Julius Randle, a unanimous top-10 projected pick who has nothing to lose leaving for the draft after one season. But after Randle, none of Kentucky's frontcourt from last season are definite defectors.
Marcus Lee, the 6'9 freshman who rose to Spike Albrechtian levels of insta-fame when he scored 10 points in the first half of the Elite Eight after scoring a total of four points since Feb. 1, will return to school. He was a McDonald's All-American in 2013, one of six in Kentucky's signing class that year, and his raw athleticism displayed against the Wolverines led some to question if he would leave, but Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv reported Monday that Lee would stay.
Freshman center Dakari Johnson and sophomore wing Alex Poythress have yet to make announcements. Johnson was Kentucky's starting center from February on last season, and he contrasted Cauley-Stein despite both measuring at an even 7'0. Johnson is 265 pounds and a more traditional center with advanced low-post moves. He's also an elite offensive rebounder; had he played in enough of Kentucky's available minutes to qualify, his 17.0 offensive rebounding percentage would have been fifth in Division I.
Here is the kind of thing Poythress, a 6'8 sophomore, does:
DraftExpress currently projects Poythress as the 41st overall pick in the 2015 draft, so his defection would be more of a surprise than, say, if Johnson were to go. Poythress could decide to leave if he decides his stock couldn't get much better by coming back for his junior year; that said, John Calipari insisted throughout the year that Poythress is a talented shooter, and he was not a strong jump shooter as a sophomore. He was 18-of-55 on two-point jumpers (shots from outside 4 feet) in 2013-14, according to Hoop-Math. He was also 8-of-33 from three-point range.
A relative unknown in the equation, and thus a wild card, among returning players is 6'9 freshman Derek Willis. Willis played a total of 39 minutes as a freshman, scoring 16 points in 14 appearances. He's a lean, athletic shooter who earned praise from across Kentucky's locker room for how he lit up the Wildcats' big men in practice leading up to their 74-73 win over the Wisconsin Badgers in the Final Four. Willis played the role of Badgers star Frank Kaminsky in practice all week, prepping the big men for how to defend him. Kaminsky finished with eight points in that game. If Willis improves defensively, he could see a dramatic spike in playing time as a sophomore. He could also remain buried on the bench.
If Johnson, Poythress and Willis all join Cauley-Stein and Lee in returning, the logjam still wouldn't end with those five. Joining the Wildcats in the class of 2014 are two big men: 6'10 Trey Lyles and 7'0 Karl-Anthony Towns. Both were McDonald's All-Americans. Lyles, who is more of a perimeter player, averaged 23.7 points and 12.9 rebounds his senior season of high school on his way to earning Indiana's Mr. Basketball honors. Meanwhile, Towns was the Gatorade National Player of the Year, averaging 21.5 points, 13.7 rebounds and 6.4 blocks per game as a senior at St. Joseph's High School in Metuchen, N.J. Towns can play inside but is also mobile — not to Cauley-Stein's level — and can shoot from the perimeter — though perhaps not to Willis' level. He's also still growing, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports.
Finding minutes for all seven players will be tough next season, if all seven are on Calipari's roster. Each offers something a bit different than the rest, and each is quite talented in his own way. But none can run the offense, and a huge lineup featuring many of these players together would handicap the Wildcats' offense and defense. Calipari will have his hands full with the best problem a coach could have: finding enough playing time for a whole bunch of players who all deserve it and would likely flourish given the opportunity.