LAS VEGAS DeMarcus Cousins' prospects for competing in future Olympics and World Cup tournaments are improving by the hour. He is paying attention, practicing hard, throwing down the occasional dunk, swiping rebounds and blending into USA Basketball's red, white and blue background.
So, no, the biggest threat to his candidacy isn't his behavior. Or his demeanor. Or his lack of conditioning. Those days appear to be gone. But wither the American center? Those days are gone, too.
"We have a script about what our front line looks like," USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said after Wednesday's mild practice, "and right now it's going to be athletic. That's our strength. You go with your strength. But it would be great to have a presence with some size. Deep down, that's what I'm thinking."
Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski reserve the right to scratch out a new philosophy before next summer's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. But the trend and recent numbers have not been kind to American big men. The 1996 Olympic team was the last 12-man roster with at least three centers: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal.
Tyson Chandler was the U.S. team's only center in the 2012 Olympics and 2010 World Championships. Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh were the only U.S. big men in the 2008 Games. In the bruising 2004 Games where the United States suffered its first international defeat since the Dream Team of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley romped through the competition in 1992 Tim Duncan alone contended with the smothering zone defenses and big, bruising front line of the gold medalists from Argentina.
Of the 25 players at this week's minicamp, the only centers are Cousins, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Larry Sanders.
Two frontcourt vacancies for next summer's tournament in Spain were eliminated Wednesday when holdovers Kevin Durant and Kevin Love announced plans to return.
"Those two guys are part of our nucleus," Colangelo said. "Who is going to complement them? What are our needs? We're not putting someone on the team because he's big. That person has to fit."
Cousins' courting of Colangelo and Krzyzewski temporarily concludes with tonight's Blue-White scrimmage at UNLV. His best option would be to fit in with his teammates while dominating the opposition. A repeat of his performance in the Kings' season finale 36 points, 22 rebounds, three assists, three blocks would give Colangelo and Krzyzewski something to ponder in upcoming months.
Colangelo and his staffers openly and often debate the merits of including more centers. Nor should it be forgotten that Cousins almost played his way onto the 2012 Olympic team after his shaky start at the training session.
There simply aren't many like him: durable 6-foot-11, 270-pound centers who have soft hands and wide, powerful bodies that can both punish and absorb the nightly NBA pounding. Consider that in his three seasons with the Kings, he has missed more games because of suspensions (eight) than injury or illness (three).
"DeMarcus can just play," one NBA coach noted after observing the practices, "and this year he seems very focused, very engaged in everything that's taking place."
The frowns, the head shakes, the complaints? The exaggerated demeanor that irritated Team USA officials last summer? Cousins is intensely competitive, and that's not changing. But for whatever reasons, perhaps maturity among them, the bad acts have been on sabbatical.
"We're looking for continual improvement," Colangelo said. "We see guys here this summer who were here last year, and you can measure improvement. Paul George you can measure the improvement. DeMarcus has had a great attitude, and he's been working hard. He's got plenty of time to prove he should be a candidate (for the 2014 World Cup), and since we don't have to make any decisions until the end of the NBA season, he should just go play his game."
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.