NBA Draft Analyst Matt Babcock recently talked to 2020 NBA Draft prospect Cassius Stanley of the Duke Blue Devils. They discussed his college recruitment, Coach K, his role at Duke, his transition to the NBA, and more.
Matt Babcock: I’d like to start by asking you a question about your family background. Your dad, Jerome Stanley, has worked as a sports agent for more than 30 years, representing professional basketball and football players. Do you think having had the unique vantage point into the sports world growing up created advantages for you now that you are soon to be a professional athlete yourself?
Cassius Stanley: I think that having my dad being a sports agent for so long definitely had its advantages. The fact that being a younger kid being around professional athletes since I could remember and being able to see them work, being able to see how they move, how they carry themselves, and how they lived their lives were huge advantages. At a younger age, I tried to emulate the professional mindset and prided myself on moving like a professional. During these last couple of years leading up to the back end of high school going into college, I was so focused on trying to live, move, and act like a professional and it really helped me when I did get to college. It helped me to know how hard I had to work, how much time I had to put in. As I maneuvered through situations I was able to ask myself, “what would a professional athlete do? How would they go about this? How would they work out? How hard would they go?” I was able to see how professional athletes move and go through life. It was a good head start for me.
You started your high school career at Harvard-Westlake, and then transferred to Sierra Canyon, for your junior and senior years, where you won two state championships. Can you walk us through how that all went down?
Actually, I started at Sierra Canyon when I was in 4th grade and I was there through 8th grade. I loved it there. It’s a great school with a great environment. After I finished my 8th grade year, I looked at the high school team and they were pretty loaded. They had a bunch of D-1 guys like Derryk Thornton, Cody Riley, Ira Lee, and Remy Martin, so they had things really packed. With me coming up, I wanted to go the route of being able to play a lot and contribute right away. I believed in my game and I didn't want to be a freshman that had to fight for five minutes a game. I liked the idea of having an opportunity to be able to play significant minutes. That was a big thing for me. That was the main reason why I decided to go to Harvard-Westlake for my freshman and sophomore years. It was a great experience for me to be able to go there. It’s a high academic school. I was able to learn how to balance working out, playing basketball, and then doing two or three hours of homework at night. I think that really helped me figure out my way through my first year of college. Being able to go there early on was big. Then going back to Sierra Canyon was more about getting back to a more comfortable spot for me. There wasn't anything wrong with Harvard-Westlake but I was able to go back and win two state championships in an environment that saw me grow and nurtured me. It was just one of those things where I wanted to be able to say, “whatever I do after high school and whatever I do after college, I graduated from Sierra Canyon.”
You were born and raised in Los Angeles. Your dad attended USC and your mom attended UCLA. Somehow you ended up across the country at Duke. Were you tempted to stay close to home? And what were the deciding factors for choosing to go to Duke?
Yeah, I was really tempted to stay at home. For the longest time, and until probably February of my senior year, I thought I was going to go to UCLA. I thought I was going to stay home. Then, when Coach Alford was fired, I was really set on Kansas before Duke came in. I had started to wrap my brain around going to Kansas in the midwest and knowing that I was going to leave home. Then a couple of weeks later, Coach Nate James from Duke reached out to my father and me and asked if my recruitment was open. We were skeptical at first. We wanted to make sure that we didn't just jump on the Duke train without giving other schools a chance. We decided we were going to allow some other schools to recruit me and try to give everyone a fair shot even though they were coming in late. During that time, Duke came in aggressively. They were talking with me and my parents once or twice a day. Ultimately, it came down to what program, what coach, and what school is going to teach me the game the best? Show me the most on the basketball floor and off the floor too? Who's going to be the best teacher? Who's going to teach me things like accountability on and off the court, knowledge of the game, and the nuances of the game? I felt like Coach K would do the best job. Coach Self is a great coach, he's a Hall of Famer too. I just felt like Duke was going to better prepare me to be a professional. Also, overall as a school and as an institution, Duke was a better opportunity for me after basketball to succeed in a second and third career. That's not intended to be a knock on Kansas at all. I just felt like Duke was going to be the best situation for me.
You’re arguably the best athlete in this year’s NBA draft. Your highlight reel is filled with high-flying dunks. Your mom Tonya competed on the track & field team at UCLA. Do you think you were just blessed with good genes, or would you consider yourself to be more a product of proper development?
I think it's a mixture of proper development and good genes. I think percentage-wise if I had to break it down, I'd say 70/30, good genes to proper development. For the longest time, I just had good genes but I didn’t want to be that guy who was just a raw athlete. My mom and dad were big on my development early on. They made sure I did things the right way in regards to jumping and running. One of the craziest things for me is that I had tendonitis in 7th or 8th grade. That was a sign for me that I needed to develop myself. I tried to figure out how I could run and jump better and correctly. Up until then, I was just a raw athlete. I think that was a blessing in disguise, because if I didn't have tendinitis I might have just kept doing things the wrong way.
From what I understand, you’ve gained quite a bit of weight and strength since high school. Where would you consider yourself in regards to your physical development? Would you like to add more physical strength? And what would be an ideal playing weight for you?
I would definitely like to add more weight. Right now I’m about 202, and that’s about where I was during the season. For the next level, I’d like to get my playing weight up to about 210 for my first couple of years in the league. I'm strong and I have dense bones, so I think I could put on a little bit more weight. It's not really about the number for me, though. It's more about how I feel, my ability to run the right way, and explode. Actually, going into my senior year of high school I tried to gain weight and I did, I was pretty heavy, but it wasn’t comfortable for me at all so I dropped that weight pretty quickly.
Between Vernon Carey, Tre Jones, Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore, and yourself, you guys were loaded with talent this year at Duke. It’s not uncommon for coaches to ask players to make sacrifices for the greater good of the group. Do you feel as if you made sacrifices in regards to your role on that team? And did Coach K directly communicate what role he wanted you to fill?
Yeah, I think I made sacrifices for sure. At the beginning of the year, Coach K told me that we had Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire and that he wanted me to be more of a wing that’s always in attack mode and aggressive. It was a little bit of change just because in high school, I was always on the ball as the primary guard either at the one or two. At Duke, I played more of the three and it took a little bit of an adjustment for me. I had to play against and guard bigger and stronger players. On the offensive end, Coach K really honed in on me knocking down open jumpers consistently, which helped me in that position of being a wing. He also wanted me to attack on the wings and the corners. He wanted me to do more off the catch. I didn't really have that many opportunities to get the ball and dribble a whole bunch. That really helped me learn how to be more efficient with my dribbling and my moves. I had to be quick and decisive. I do think I sacrificed for the greater good of the team, but I also think that the role Coach K had me play helped my development to be more efficient and decisive, being quicker with my moves, and being more aggressive. It definitely helped prepare me for the next level.
This season you made 31 three-pointers and shot 36% from beyond the arc. What I find interesting is that 100% of your threes were assisted. In the NBA, should we expect to see the bulk of your perimeter shots coming from catch and shoot opportunities, or do you think this stat is misleading and a product of your role at Duke?
I do think that stat is somewhat misleading because of the role I played at Duke. It does show that if a team wants to draft me and they have a great lead guard, I could help space the floor. In the NBA, everything is about spacing and players need to be able to knock down open shots consistently. This past year, I learned how to really master the wings and corners when it came to catch and shoot opportunities. I'm working on shooting off the dribble, but I think it's a great time to show that one-hundred percent of my threes came off assists this season. If I’m with a lead guard that’s established, I can be trusted to help space the floor and knock down shots.
For the rest of your career, you can say that you played for Hall of Fame coach, Coach K. How was that experience for you?
It was great! It was everything I had expected and more. He carries himself in a way that demands greatness and excellence from everybody, but he's not one of those coaches that’s going to berate the players. He's a great guy! He's always having conversations with the players. One good example of his leadership is when COVID-19 hit, he asked us what we thought about going to Greensboro, and if we should play or not. He's just very personable. He's always learning about the players, their tendencies, and giving them options, a role, and letting them have a voice for themselves. One of the biggest things I learned from Coach K is that you don't have to be an extremely over-the-top demanding kind of guy to be successful and gain respect. He showed me so many things on the basketball court and through film, but he also taught me how to be a man. He taught me and my teammates how to be accountable and to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Playing for Coach K this past year was amazing!
It seems as if coaches always pinpoint certain things for players to improve on, especially freshman. This past season, was there any specific part of your game that Coach K encouraged you to work on?
As I said earlier, he wanted me to stay aggressive. Even after a couple of shots wouldn’t go down he wanted me to make plays, to look to score the ball, and stay connected. He also taught me how to utilize my athleticism to the fullest. For example, during one of the first couple of practices of the season, Coach K came up to me and asked, “How do you think you did today?” I said, “I thought I did well.” He asked, “do you think you ran hard?” I said, “yes.” He said, “you weren't running hard.” I thought about that for a while, and later on, he showed me a couple of clips on film; he was right. He explained that if I use my burst and beat my man down the court and made it obvious that I was open, it will be easier for our offense to roll and that I’ll get so many easy points and open threes. I really thought about it and I tried it. I realized that if I just beat my man up the floor, it will open up everything. Running the floor is such a simple thing, and I wasn't doing it to my fullest potential, but he got it out of me.
Let’s flash forward 5 years from now — what role in the NBA do you expect to fill? Is there a specific player that you admire and would like to have a career comparable to?
I'd like to be a contributing player on a championship team. That’s my goal for five years from now. Individual accolades are great, but they are all opinion-based and voted on, so you don’t have any control over them. I can control how I contribute, how well I play, and the effort I put in. I look at Zach LaVine and Russell Westbrook and I study their games. Their size and athleticism are very comparable to mine. I try to bring the same level of tenacity and aggression as Russell does and I like the way that Zach uses his athleticism to create space and finish plays.
In your mind, what do you need to work and improve on to get to that point?
I probably need to get more comfortable with creating off the dribble. I think I am comfortable, but I need to get to the point where the ball and I are one. I also need to be able to create shots and make sure I have my mechanics right when shooting off the dribble and just getting my footwork right. I've been working on all of that during this quarantine and offseason, so there will definitely be an improvement with all of those things. For me, it's all about making sure I'm consistent with my ball handling, my shooting, and that everything is tightened and ready to go.
Although you just finished your freshman year, you will be turning 21 on August 18th, an age that is more common for upperclassmen. Is this something that NBA teams should be concerned about?
No, I don't think teams should be concerned about that at all. It's a fact that star players like Michael Jordan, Paul George, Steph Curry, and a long list of other guys came out after a couple of years or more of school and I’m coming out after just one year. I don't believe that just because there have been certain players like LeBron or Kobe who came out when they were 17 or 18 that it’s the only model that will work in order to achieve success. I believe that for me to come out to be a 21-year-old rookie, I'll be able to compete immediately. I'm not going to be a long-term developmental player. I'm not going to have to struggle versus going against grown men because I am a grown man. I'll be able to contribute immediately and I think that should be a plus and not a negative.
Ok, let’s pretend you’re getting on an elevator with an NBA general manager that’s considering you with their pick. What’s your elevator pitch as to why that general manager should select you?
I'm a winning player. I’ve won at every level, I know how to win, and I make winning plays. For example, I think one X-factor with me being a bigger guard is my ability to rebound. This past year, I was second on our team in rebounding. I think it's hard for other guards to contain me and I’m able to create extra possessions for my team on the offensive end, and on the defensive end, it allows my team to push the tempo. My outside shooting is improving every day. I am confident I can knock down the NBA three at a high rate. My athleticism and tenacity translate. However, the main reason you should draft me is because I am a winner.