Willie Cauley-Stein will learn ‘on the fly’ in Warriors debut

Golden State Warriors have cleared projected starting center for action against Phoenix

CHASE CENTER — Since suffering a left mid-foot strain before training camp, center Willie Cauley-Stein has had to find ways to learn the Golden State Warriors’ system.

It’s no easy task, given that Golden State’s motion offense — predicated on nuanced reads and reactions — is best learned by experience.

Golden State’s most prized offseason signing will make his Warriors debut on Wednesday against Phoenix without having scrimmaged or practiced in full. That Cauley-Stein is being pressed into service after missing the entire preseason is a testament to the threadbare state of the Warriors’ frontcourt.

“This’ll be the first time I even practiced with these dudes in a game setting, so it’s going to be a lot of learning on the fly,” Cauley-Stein said.

Over the last two months, head coach Steve Kerr regularly lamented the fact that Cauley-Stein wouldn’t be able to learn the offense along with Golden State’s eight other newcomers, since he suffered the foot injury days before the start of training camp, and missed the entire preseason. Cauley-Stein was initially not supposed to even be re-evaluated until Thursday, but he’d made enough strides for team doctors to clear him.

Cauley-Stein won’t be the only player coming back — Alec Burks is also listed as probable, giving Golden State a capable wing defender with eight years of NBA experience — but he’s arguably the most important. Considered a high-value pickup when he signed a two-year, $4.4 million deal in July, Cauley-Stein, 26, was a virutal lock to be the Warriors’ starting center, allowing Kevon Looney to play an important support role.

Soon after Cauley-Stein went down, though, Looney was sidelined with right hamstring tightness that cost him the preseason. The condition stems from a neuropathic issue that now has him out indefinitely. Second-round draft pick Alen Smailagic also missed all of training camp with an ankle injury, and has yet to return. Golden State has had to make do with a center rotation of Draymond Green, training camp invitee Marquese Chriss and offseason acquisition Omari Spellman, traded to Golden State after one season with the Hawks.

The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Chriss is more of a forward by trade, and he’s gotten into foul trouble playing against bigger players, averaging 3.3 fouls in 15.3 minutes per night.

Spellman, though he’s pulling down over seven rebounds per game, has an effective field goal percentage of 43.5%, and is shooting just 41.2% inside the 3-point arc.

The Warriors used to use the 6-foot-6 Green only as a small-ball center with the so-called Hamptons Five or Death Lineup when they needed to close out a game, or make a run during a playoff game. He’s not equipped to bang with big bodies for long stretches.

Without a true center to serve as a rim protector, Golden State has allowed 55.3 points per game in the paint — third-most in the NBA — and are 14th in points in the paint scored. While Cauley-Stein hasn’t become the rim protector many projected out of college, he has the size to disuade teams from driving, and four years of NBA experience.

“I’m the biggest guy out there, so that mismatch won’t be there anymore, which is the biggest thing,” Cauley Stein said. “Just the simplest getting guys open, setting good screens, rolling hard so the 3-point shooters on the back side could get their shot, finishing, just playing my game.”

Cauley-Stein, a seven-footer checking in at 242 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and a 37-inch vertical leap, is a lob threat who excels as a screener in pick-and-rolls. His ability to curl hard to the rim should make him ideal to pair with both Stephen Curry and fellow offseason acquisition D’Angelo Russell, whose 920 pick-and-roll possessions last season were just 75 fewer than Golden State had as a team.

Like Chriss, Cauley-Stein — the former No. 6 overall pick by the Kings in the 2015 draft — is also a very good passer out of the post, averaging 2.4 assists per game over the last two seasons, which should make him an ideal pivot point in Kerr’s offense. In recent weeks, he’s made a point of learning the offense any way but on the floor, including video sessions with Jarron Collins.

“Being somewhere new, you have to relearn everything,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’ve been in the league five years, but I feel like a rookie again just because I have to learn a new system. Obviously, there’s tricks I know of how to get through that, but it’s just a different feel.”

He’ll also have to condition himself as he goes, too, which means he likely won’t play more than 20 minutes (though there’s no official minutes restriction), and he’ll have to ramp up quickly, since Golden State likely won’t practice much with a back-to-back on Friday and Saturday.

“You can’t really prepare for game conditions,” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s just something that, these first couple games, I’m just going to have to play extremely hard, and try to just blow out my lungs and get into game shape.”

Playing against a Suns team that should be deterred from driving just by Cauley-Stein’s size alone may be the ideal introduction.

“Even though you watch it and watch it … it doesn’t really click until it’s a game setting, game speed, the spacing is game-like,” Cauley-Stein said. “But at the end of the day, it’s hoops. … You have to learn how to do it on the fly and improv, honestly.”

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