Willie Cauley-Stein is the king of the jungle for the ferocious Kentucky Wildcats because he has the speed to chase down fleeing prey and the size and length to devour them once they're within his grasp.
It looked like National Geographic when Cauley-Stein corralled Jerian Grant into a corner and forced the doomed gazelle into a desperate game-winning attempt. The shot missed and the Wildcats remained undefeated.
It was an extraordinary play, but those who have watched Kentucky at all this season shouldn't have been shocked.
At 7'0 with a 7'2 wingspan, Cauley-Stein's basic measurements are impressive. But the numbers he logged this past year at the Kentucky Combine put him in unique territory.
No big man has ever recorded a quicker time in the lane agility drill, which assesses body control and change of direction ability. And with a 147-inch maximum vertical reach, few bigs even come close to Cauley-Stein's length.
But Cauley-Stein athleticism doesn't only shine in his practice shorts. John Calipari has used his bouncy big man as a defensive stopper by having him harass the opponent's best player, regardless of their position. The 21-year-old has the lateral quickness to defend at least three positions in the NBA, though he can defend all five in college while wearing a blindfold. Big men should not be able to stay with NBA-quality guards like Grant.
"I don't think many (players could've blocked that shot). I barely got it. Anthony Davis could've gotten it," Cauley-Stein said when asked about that block. "The step-back is probably one of the fastest step-backs I've guarded. (Grant's) good at it. He knows how to set you up just to get you just enough space. I'm fortunate I even got my fingertips on it."
Cauley-Stein almost got beat, but he morphed into a pogo stick and leaped into the shot's trajectory using his wingspan. It's unfathomable that Cauley-Stein got there and it could go down as the biggest play of his collegiate career ... at least until he does something equally as spectacular in the Final Four.
It's not out of the question for Cauley-Stein to actually defend all five positions in the NBA. Consider his measurements:
Very few players are as fast and laterally-quick as Cauley-Stein, much less big men. Only seven players have lane agility and sprint scores that combine for fewer seconds than him, and none of them measure over 6'4.
As more NBA teams switch pick and rolls and off-ball screens, many head coaches will feel comfortable allowing Cauley-Stein to defend the perimeter. Most big men get exposed if they're away from the paint. Cauley-Stein won't be, offering his NBA team unique versatility.
We've talked about his lateral quickness, but he can protect the rim too. If a team rotation is missed, he's swift enough to get to the other side of the court and long enough to block or at least deter the play. And he has even matured to the point where he resists the natural urge of a young shot blocker to leave his feet and commit fouls. These defensive attributes will all translate to the next level.
While it's true Cauley-Stein can't score in the low post or facilitate offense like his contemporaries, those draft prospects don't have near his ability on the defensive end. Scoring is sexy, but defense is also a necessity and Cauley-Stein brings that at the highest of levels.
Staying three years at Kentucky has allowed Cauley-Stein to become an intelligent and athletic rim protector that can also stay with guards. The lottery team that is fortunate enough to draft him will have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for many years to come.