Cousins says he's ready to step up and be a leader

10/27/2013 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:57 AM

Sometimes change can be sincere – especially when you don't even realize you're changing.

Consider Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, for example.

"(Cousins) thought I was joking around, but I told him, 'Man you had a really great attitude this game,' " Kings guard Isaiah Thomas said following a rather uneventful performance by Cousins in a preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers in Las Vegas. "Times you didn't get the ball, times you got fouled, that's how you've got to be."

Not even a shot to the jaw from Lakers center Chris Kaman could unnerve Cousins.

"He was hurt, and usually he'd be back cussing the ref out right there (pointing to the opposite end of the floor) instead of getting back on defense," Thomas said. "Instead he was like, 'OK, let me get back on defense.' "

If it all comes that naturally for Cousins this season, the Kings could be on the right track to respectability – with Cousins as a leader.

That's right, a leader.

Yes, the same Cousins who led the NBA in technical fouls last season and was suspended three times – including once by the Kings – for unprofessional behavior.

It's certainly more than fair to be skeptical.

There's only one thing the 23-year-old Cousins can do about the doubters – prove them wrong by showing that the travails of the past three seasons are behind him, that he can make headlines for his play instead.

Things are set up for the fourth-year center to succeed, too.

There's a new owner, Vivek Ranadive, who supports Cousins and is driven to improve the team.

There's a general manager, Pete D'Alessandro, who welcomes input from Cousins.

There's a new coach, Michael Malone, who reached out early and often to let Cousins know how valuable he is to the franchise.

Any lingering doubt about how the new management team feels about Cousins was put to rest when they agreed to a four-year contract extension worth $62 million, the most he was eligible for over four years under NBA salary rules.

Now it's Cousins' turn – to live up to that support by producing and leading the Kings to more success on the court.

Attitude adjustment

Cousins always has wanted to be a leader for the Kings, but learning how to do that has been a struggle.

Cousins' first coach, Paul Westphal, didn't want him in that role. Cousins' next coach, Keith Smart, encouraged him to step to the forefront, only to feud with him like Westphal did.

Rather than growing as a leader, Cousins became more difficult during his third season, brooding as the losses piled up.

"When I first came here during (last) season, it seemed like he was somebody else," said Kings forward Patrick Patterson, who played with Cousins at Kentucky. "I don't know if it was because of the unsuccessfulness of the team, if there were problems on the team, or if he didn't like the situation he was in. But he wasn't the same DeMarcus I had seen back in Kentucky."

Cousins doesn't deny he was a load to deal with last season. The losing bothered him, the uncertainty of the franchise's future was unsettling, and being cited as the cause of the team's misfortunes hurt him.

"I wasn't in a happy place, to be honest," Cousins said. "I take my job seriously and I wear my emotions on my sleeve. That being said, the way things were around here, I wasn't happy. We really had nothing to look forward to. It was just like you were working for nothing. You didn't know what to expect. You felt like you were just there."

Cousins said he tried to control what he could control, but he came up short again and again as the technical fouls, ejections and run-ins with teammates, coaches and officials piled up.

"I know I did a lot of dumb things," Cousins said. "I could have handled a lot of situations better. I was mad at myself for that."

That includes how he's dealt with teammates who found it tough to play with him when the focus shifted from the play on the court to Cousins' behavior.

Lessons learned

Cousins insists he wants to be a better teammate and realizes he has to handle situations better in order to do that.

"When I make those mistakes, getting ejected, getting techs, that's not being a good teammate," Cousins said. "I'm not thinking about them at that time, I'm just thinking about myself. But that's where I'm coming from about being a better teammate. It's not 'I hate this guy or they hate me,' or anything like that."

Those incidents, however, are how many define Cousins. And it's why skeptics considered the Kings foolish for rewarding him with a maximum-salary contract extension.

Cousins, however, said he's committed to putting the past behind him and becoming a team leader.

"To (critics), the leader is the clean-cut guy, the nice guy," Cousins said. "I'm going to go out there every night and leave it on the floor. I'm the leader of this team. First one in, last one out, and I'm going to show it on the floor every night. That's being a leader. I'm going to be the one diving on the floor for balls."

When Malone was hired, he told Cousins he needed him to be a leader and harder worker.

"Being a leader is hard because you have to be ready and willing to do the right thing every day, and a lot of guys don't want to do that," Malone said. "And if you took a poll from NBA coaches, I don't think there are many true great leaders in the NBA.

"A lot of guys lead by example, but this is a process, and I think DeMarcus is definitely on the right track to becoming the leader of this team. And he's got guys like Greivis (Vasquez) and Isaiah (Thomas) also helping him out with those leadership responsibilities, but he's been great. And I say that with no B.S. He has been terrific so far."

A more mature DeMarcus

Teammates have noticed a change, too, especially with Cousins beginning to assert himself as a voice of reason.

"Everybody leads in a different way," Thomas said. " I'm not saying he's on everybody, being that type of leader. But he understands what we're trying to do, and when guys aren't in the right position, he kind of talks to them, especially the young guys.

"That's the DeMarcus I haven't seen since I've been here, and that (comes from) the maturity he's gotten, especially this year."

No one expects that Cousins won't ever have a disagreement with an official or a teammate, but it's that maturation the Kings hope he brings to the court.

Forward Jason Thompson said if the talk about Cousins is about his performance and not problems with coaches, teammates or technical fouls, then the Kings will be headed in the right direction.

Cousins could soon become an All-Star, something his teammates talk about with sincerity because of how dominant he's been in practices and the preseason.

"He's definitely been working on that and his game, too," Thompson said. "You put those things together and he's definitely a more well-rounded, mature guy."

That's exactly what the Kings want and need from one of their leaders.

Follow The Bee's Jason Jones on Twitter @mr_jasonjones and read more about the team at www.sacbee.com/kings.

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