This piece is part of SB Nation's week-long appreciation of the 2015 NBA rookie class. Read our full coverage here.
The Sacramento Kings have officially been bad for a decade now. If you're bad that long in the NBA, you have made an extraordinary number of mistakes as a franchise. The league's structure offers salves to talent-poor teams through an amateur draft that skews heavily toward the clubs with the worst records. Unless you have a horrible track record in picking players, developing them or you don't value the valuable assets properly, you're bound to land a few gems after 10 years.
Alas, the Kings have a horrible track record in picking players, have failed in developing them and don't value the valuable assets properly.
Sacramento has had nine straight lottery picks, and gotten exactly one All-Star out of it. (The Kings picked Isaiah Thomas at No. 60 overall in 2011, and let him leave as a restricted free agent in 2014. He has since become an All-Star, as well.) Here's a timeline showing how disastrous the Kings' recent draft history has been.
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Enter Willie Cauley-Stein, the team's 2015 lottery pick. Unlike Thomas Robinson and Nik Stauskas, early indications suggest Cauley-Stein has enough talent to be in the NBA. But Sacramento has learned the hard way that talent needs to be nurtured and molded. Given the sorry state of the franchise, it's an open question as to whether that will occur.
George Karl, the Kings' permanently embattled coach, has a reputation for ignoring rookies. To be sure, through the summer and fall, Karl set expectations for Cauley-Stein rather low. Cauley-Stein exceeded them through preseason, and began the season getting big minutes out of the gate. He played 30 minutes in the second game of the season, and continued getting time as DeMarcus Cousins went down with injury. Eventually, Cauley-Stein picked up an injury of his own. Still, every time he hit the court, it was clear that he was already the team's best defensive talent and the top partner for Cousins in the frontcourt.
Consider that Cauley-Stein has eclipsed Karl favorite Kosta Koufos in the rotation. (The rookie is averaging just one more minute than Koufos on the season, but has been trumping the veteran of late.) This is a positive sign, both for Cauley-Stein's early development and Karl's willingness to be less rigid. Perhaps that gnarly streak of rookie disappointments in Sacramento is ending.
But there's always a cloud. The major one regarding Cauley-Stein is that Karl is highly unlikely to return in 2016-17, so there's a new coach to impress. Who knows what style the new coach will bring with him, but ownership has favored Warriors-style pace and space. WCS doesn't space the floor, and if you're going to play an up-tempo style (as the Kings have this year) playing two true bigs together (say, Cousins and Cauley-Stein) makes less sense.
Cousins has stretched his own offense beyond the arc, and he's a good passer. That situates Cauley-Stein as the traditional run-and-finish center. In a perfect world Cousins would be getting lots of post possessions, and there's really nowhere for WCS to go during those. His mere presence is an open invitation to double Cousins.
The constant problem in Sacramento is there's no consistent plan. The Kings thought they were building a certain kind of team under Michael Malone: tough, slow, post-dominant. That went up in smoke. Karl met ownership's mandate to run, come hell or high water. Cousins moved away from the rim, neutering the most effective part of his game. The Kings have no spacing in most lineups and trying to emulate the Warriors with no more than two shooters on the floor at any given time is like trying to squeeze orange juice from a pine cone.
Will Cauley-Stein fit the next vision of the Kings, or will he be pushed to the background? Cousins is the alpha here, and will be until he leaves. The likelihood of Sacramento shopping Boogie in the offseason is lower than Brad Miller's vertical. Cauley-Stein can work next to Cousins -- that's been evident this season -- but will a new coach with a new system and probably a new decree from on high see it the same way, or will WCS be relegated to afterthought like so many Kings kids before him?
If ever there were an example of how a franchise can ruin its own salvation, Sacramento is the example. Let's hope Willie Cauley-Stein isn't another victim of the self-immolation.