It didn’t take Willie Cauley-Stein long to impress Kentucky coach John Calipari, which was not a huge surprise to Mike Groves, Cauley-Stein’s Olathe Northwest High School coach in Kansas.
“Willie is just an unbelievable athlete. There is no ceiling to his athletic ability,” said Groves about the 6-11 forward/center who is going through limited summer workouts with Calipari and his teammates. “If he buys into what they are preaching and drinks their Kool-Aid, he will just get better and better. I am not surprised that he has impressed Cal because I know the gifts he has. If he puts in the work and continues to develop a strong work ethic, he will be a great player at Kentucky.”
“He was recruited by everyone in the United States,” Groves said. “His thing is he is not polished. He was more of a defensive presence for us because of his athletic ability. He’s got to shore up his offensive game. When you are that special athletically, you can get away with some things. With the coaching and resources he will have at Kentucky, I think he will get way better offensively.
“I don’t think anyone looked past his talent. I think they all saw his potential and just that he was not polished offensively.”
Groves said several things stood out to Calipari immediately when he recruited Cauley-Stein.
“He just liked the way he ran, his timing, his jumping ability,” Groves said. “Willie does a lot of things you can’t coach. He just has unbelievable athleticism. If he continues to buy in and wants to be good, the gifts are there.
“He is not a physically weak person, but he has also never been in a regimented weight program. He’ll have those resources at Kentucky and having to be there and lift, he will gain weight and get stronger. Before he had the time to do it, but never really saw the need because of his athleticism. That changes at Kentucky now.”
Groves had Cauley-Stein for two years after he moved from tiny Spearville,¿Kan., after his sophomore year to near Kansas City.
“Willie is a great person with a great heart. He’s very laid back,” Groves said. “He is going to find at Kentucky that he will have to take his game to another level, and he will and can do that. He has a great demeanor and works well with others.
“In his two years under me, he got more aggressive. He has the ability to sustain himself play after play, but when you are that athletic you sometimes learn to just play in spurts and when you need to. He made strides there. He is a very unselfish passer. It’s not like he doesn’t have an offensive game, either. Is he a true back to the post man? Not yet. Is he a true 10- to 15-foot jump shooter? Not now, but he can and will be. Once his game is polished and defined, all the pieces are there.”
Groves said his defensive game is polished.
“He is a big-time shot blocker. He has great timing. He has got length. He has jumping ability. He has great eye-hand coordination. He just has a knack to block shots that you can’t teach,” Groves said.
Could he actually play the power forward position as Calipari has indicated?
“He is going to have the ability to step out on the floor and do those things. It just comes down to repetition and the work he puts in,” Groves said. “He is very versatile. He brought the ball up and down floor some for us this year.
“It would not surprise me if Cal and his staff toyed with him a little bit facing the basket and used him out there 15 to 20 feet from the rim, but he can also play with his back to basket because he has that great jumping ability.”
Groves did not know Calipari personally before he started recruiting his start. He only knew about Calipari’s background as an assistant coach at Kansas to start his coaching career.
“But I was very impressed with him and (assistant) Orlando Antigua and the whole staff and their approach to Willie,” Groves said. “I believe Willie is in a great spot.”
Groves says if there was anything that surprised him about Calipari it would have been the coach’s “total honesty.”
“He told him it would be really hard and if he wasn’t prepared for the day to day grind to get better that Kentucky was probably not the best place for him,” Groves said. “He was very honest, but he also let it be know he wanted Willie and that he thought he could be a special player. He really sold Willie on being a special player and he has the track record for kids to believe that.”