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Cauley-Stein, he plays basketball too

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Willie Cauley-Stein comes to UK after participating in tennis, baseball, track and soccer, football and basketball in high school. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein comes to UK after participating in tennis, baseball, track and soccer, football and basketball in high school. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The era of the multi-sport athlete, for the most part, is long gone. Especially for basketball players - with their travel teams and year-round schedules - specialization is happening at an earlier and earlier age.

Don't tell that to Willie Cauley-Stein.

Attending his first three years of high school in tiny Spearville, Kan., population 773, Cauley-Stein wasn't a multi-sport athlete; he was an every-sport athlete.

"Where I grew up, we didn't have a lot of people so you kind of had to play every sport so you had enough people to play," Cauley-Stein said.

Ask Cauley-Stein which sports he played in high school and it sounds like he's reading a page from an Olympic program: tennis, baseball, track and soccer. Oh yeah, and football and basketball. You know, the sports he's actually known for.

"My family is extremely athletic," Cauley-Stein said. "It doesn't matter what it is, I'm good at it. Not being cocky or anything, it just happened to be like that. I'm extremely humble about it, but it just ends up like that."

Cauley-Stein's brief experience as a track athlete is the perfect example of his preternatural gifts.

As a sophomore, he made a habit of watching track practice. He had friends on the team and eventually the coaches approached him about giving the sport a shot.

"One day, they said, 'Why don't you run one?' " Cauley-Stein said. "I ran a 400 and I won."

Cauley-Stein was good enough that the coaches asked him to participate in the team's final two meets, running the 100-meter dash and a pair of relays and long jumping. He went through limited practices leading up to the meets, but unsurprisingly, another event caught his eye: triple jump.

"I was like, 'That looks kind of interesting,' " Cauley-Stein said.

Without a coach specific to triple jump, Cauley-Stein jumped over 37-and-a-half feet, falling a mere quarter-inch shy of qualifying for the state meet.

Cauley-Stein was a jack of all athletic trades in high school, but his favorite sports were football and baseball, not basketball.

"I only played basketball because my whole family did it," Cauley-Stein said. "My mom was good at it, all my aunts and uncles went to college for it, and my dad went to college for it. I just kind of kept it there because my whole family did it."

He kept it there long enough that he evolved into a high-major prospect, a 7-foot one at that. Basketball may not have been his favorite sport at the time, but he was mature enough to realize what it could mean to his future.

"Once I got to a point where colleges were recruiting me for it, then it kind of hit home," Cauley-Stein said. "This is what I need to do. I have to do this."

After his sophomore year, Cauley-Stein moved to Kansas City, where he lived with the family of Shavon Shields, a close friend from his AAU team. Under the firm hand of Shavon's father Will - a 12-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs - he focused on academics to make sure he'd have the opportunity to play basketball in college. On the court, his game improved along with the level of competition, averaging 12 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and four assists as a senior at Olathe Northwest High School.

Even then, basketball was never his sole athletic focus. He continued to play football, garnering interest from Big 12 schools as he amassed more than 1,200 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns as a senior. In fact, John Calipari never saw Cauley-Stein play a high-school basketball game, but he did take in more than one football game.

"I told him when we recruited him, 'You don't even know how good you're going to become. You have no idea.' " Calipari said.

After a summer of workouts in Lexington, Cauley-Stein is finally starting to get an idea.

In his first few months on campus, the lowest-rated recruit among UK's fourth straight top-ranked recruiting class has been a revelation. His work in the weight room had him up to 225 pounds in early September. In the gym, Cauley-Stein has shown off speed, jumping ability and a deft touch around the basket. In the process, Cauley-Stein has built a level of confidence he's never had.

"It's the greatest thing when you're coaching and you see a guy start building (confidence)," Calipari said. "He didn't have a shirt on and I looked at his arm and I said, 'Man, you've got some bumps. That's crazy.' And then he goes like this and makes a muscle and points at the weight strength coach, 'He helped me.' "

A few months ago, Cauley-Stein thought of himself the same way most college coaches and scouts did: as a good-but-not-great player with a potentially bright future. Coach Cal was the exception, always seeing big things in store for his freshman forward. Now, Cauley-Stein is thinking along the same lines.

Nerlens Noel is the incoming freshman bearing the weight of comparisons to Anthony Davis. Noel will discuss how his game stacks up with last year's national player of the year when asked, but Cauley-Stein did it all on his own.

When talking about why he chose Kentucky in the first place, he cited Coach Cal's ability to develop players. He saw what Davis was at the beginning of the season and what he eventually became. He's not saying he's going to be the No. 1 overall pick in next year's NBA Draft, but he does see a little of himself in the current New Orleans Hornet.

"We're kind of similar," Cauley-Stein said. "He was a point guard. I was a point guard and then sprouted up. Our body types are the same. Our movement, we don't run like 6-10, 6-11, 7-foot guys should run."

Or triple jump, for that matter.

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