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By LARRY VAUGHT
Mike Groves coached Kentucky freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein for two years after he moved from tiny Spearville, Kan., after his sophomore year to near Kansas City to live with Will Shields, a former Kansas City Chief and 12-time Pro Bowl choice, and his wife after befriending their son, Shavon, during AAU play. He had to sit out the first semester of his junior year as a transfer.
“Willie is a great person with a great heart. He’s very laid back,” Groves said. “At the same time, 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. I am looking forward to seeing his progress at Kentucky under Calipari.”
John Calipari has praised Cauley-Stein’s defense from the day he signed with the Wildcats. Groves said that part of his game is polished.
“He just has a knack for playing defense and 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. “He has that phenomenal athletic ability matched with great timing. He just has that kind of stuff.”
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 for him to improve and help the Big Blue Nation have another great team.”
Groves says if there was anything that surprised him about Calipari during Cauley-Stein’s recruitment it would have been the coach’s “total honesty” with everyone.
“He told myself and Willie that Kentucky was not the best place for everyone. He told him it would be really hard and if he wasn’t prepared for the social media along with the day to day grind to get better that Kentucky was probably not the best place for him,” Groves said. “He was very honest with his approach, 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 when he says that to them.”