Cauley-Stein shows what Sacramento’s been waiting for in big win over Denver

Willie Cauley-Stein’s performance earned high praise from one of the best defenders in the game, leaving the young big man at a loss for words.

SACRAMENTO — It wasn’t perfect, but the Sacramento Kings looked like a team Saturday evening at Golden 1 Center. They were active and lively on both ends of the floor. They moved the ball and seven players finished in double-figure scoring.

Playing without veterans George Hill and Zach Randolph, Dave Joerger turned to five young players to start the game and the energy on the floor was noticeably different. Denver struggled to complete passes and almost every shot they took was contested.

“As a team we had 34 deflections, we were very active – forced 25 turnovers,” Joerger said in his opening statement following the team’s 106-98 win over the Nuggets. “Charlotte the other night had four turnovers. So our level of activity and aggressiveness was much better tonight and that’s a step forward for us.”

Sacramento finished with a season-high 16 steals, including a career-best seven from Willie Cauley-Stein. Eight of the nine players that saw the court notched at least one steal as the Kings forced the Nuggets into countless mistakes.

Taken with the sixth overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Kings have been waiting for moments like this from Cauley-Stein. His offensive numbers have steadily increased, but the 7-footer out of Kentucky has more to give on the defensive side of the ball.

Following the win, Garrett Temple, who had sounded off on the Kings’ defensive intensity earlier in the week, sang the praises of Cauley-Stein.

“I was counting them as he was getting them,” Temple said. “He’s probably the best defender on our team, man. His ability to guard five positions, not only the steals, but being able to change shots and being help side, he was just all over the floor tonight.”

Cauley-Stein is never bashful, but when told of the compliment from Temple, he was almost at a loss for words.

“That’s a lot coming from Garrett,” Cauley-Stein said with a smile. “I’m going to have to let him know about that, because Garrett’s one of the best in the league at defending, so that’s a big up to me, so I appreciate him.”

In his third year in the league, it all seems to be falling into place for Cauley-Stein. He’s hitting his jumper on a regular basis and his teammates are using him as an alley-oop machine. He has an ability to catch and finish at the rim that is helping to open up the Kings’ offense.

Late in game, Joerger reinserted him into the lineup and ran multiple offensive plays for his young center. Cauley-Stein abused Nikola Jokic on two consecutive possessions to push Sacramento’s lead from three, back up to seven.

“He’s starting to get a lot of trust in me in making plays,” Cauley-Stein said of Joerger. “It feels really good to be involved. Spending so many years of, ‘go to the corner and watch everyone else have fun,’ I’m finally in the mix and get to show my worth and it’s been a blast.”

Cauley-Stein finished the night with 17 points, four rebounds and two assists to compliment the seven steals. Over his last eight games, he’s averaging 15.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for Sacramento, showing the team he’s ready for more responsibilities moving forward.

With the win, the Kings snapped their three-game skid and moved to 13-25 on the season. They’ll finish their six-game homestand Monday night against San Antonio before hopping a plane to Los Angeles to face the Lakers on Tuesday.

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