DeMarcus Cousins spent the past week here training with other candidates for the national team that will compete later this month in the FIBA World Cup in Spain. The withdrawal of power forwards Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge enhanced his chances to make the 12-man roster, though a final cutdown is not expected for a few weeks.
After a light practice Thursday afternoon, the Kings center sat at a local restaurant and spoke for two hours about his experience; his prospects and competition against fellow “bigs” Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee; which of his NBA colleagues have most impressed; his bond with Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant; and how he would react if he fails to make Mike Krzyzewski’s 2014 squad.
Cousins contributed 11 points and 11 rebounds before Friday night’s intrasquad scrimmage was stopped abruptly because of Paul George’s serious right leg injury; initial cuts on the 20-man roster have been postponed.
In the wide-ranging interview, Cousins, who was candid, animated and predictably intense, also offered his thoughts on the Kings’ ownership and management, and the recent additions of Darren Collison, rookies Nik Stauskas and Eric Moreland, and the return of veteran forward Omri Casspi.
You spent the past two summers here with the Select Team, the younger players assembled to scrimmage and prep the national team for the major international competitions, including the 2012 Olympics. How different is your role as a candidate for Team USA?
The greatest part about this whole time is me being able to spend time with Kevin Durant. I mean, I’ve never really gotten the chance to be around him. I respect everything about him. His whole demeanor. The way he goes about the game. He’s a very unselfish guy. That’s probably the biggest thing I can take away from this.
Can you give me an example? I have noticed you sitting next to Durant on the bench during timeouts and substitutions. At times it looks like he’s offering instructions about certain plays, positions on the floor.
I’m just taking as much back to my team as I can. I’m a sponge right now. I’m being selfish right now. I am taking in what I need to do to become a better player and a better leader. I mean, I came in planning to do that anyway, but I didn’t expect to get the lessons from KD. I hear the things I need to work on. I’m not running from it. I’m accepting the challenge. I know I’m not that perfect player, but I’m trying my best. I’ve gained a whole new level of respect for KD.
What are the areas Krzyzewski and USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo said you need to improve?
Well, I need to be a better leader, which I’m not. I know I need to work on my defense. I’m not out there trying to let a guy score on me, but I have to get it (schemes) down pat. I need to be as smart on defense as I am on offense, learn to understand defense as well as offense. And I want to be that complete player.
What do you struggle with the most, defensively? Is it footwork? Difficulty grasping the concepts? Or conditioning? The USAB folks noticed that you are trimmer than the past two summers but still believe your conditioning is subpar for the uptempo system Krzyzewski runs.
I want to lose another 10 pounds, and that’s why I practiced with the Kings during the summer league. I’ve lost a lot of that old baby fat. But I am just not a typical defensive player for a normal big man. A lot of big men can’t defend. But they block shots, and that’s not really defense. Defense is about five guys moving as one ... the moving-on-a-string theory. If one guy goes to the wrong place, it breaks down. But at the end of the day, as the center, I’m the defensive anchor. And I’m working hard on it.
Your performances here ...
How do you think I’ve looked?
The media is allowed to watch only a portion of the practices. From what I have seen – and heard during conversations with scouts, coaches, USAB officials who have observed throughout – you were the most dominant player on the floor Monday: Grabbing rebounds, throwing perfect baseball passes, controlling the paint, rotating defensively and contesting shots, even blocking a few shots. Besides all of which, you really made an effort to bust down the floor, and during one sequence, sealed off Drummond, received a quick entry pass and turned in for a field goal, and was fouled. On another possession, you gathered a pass, took one dribble and threw down a powerful two-handed reverse dunk. But Tuesday, you looked fatigued and, I thought, resembled someone unaccustomed to playing the previous day at such a brisk pace.
My leg was killing me, was really sore Tuesday. But I practiced because I really want to make this team.
Well, you said you took a knee to your left thigh and were stretched extensively after Monday’s practice, and since you routinely play through injuries, most of us Sacramento media types suspected something was wrong. Wednesday you seemed to recover and push through the fatigue, soreness. You were more active, mobile, effective and dominant on the boards. Good reviews overall. Thursday was a light day, with Coach K eager to give players some rest. But both Krzyzewski and Colangelo want to see one of the “bigs” emerge in the more formal scrimmages here Friday night and again next week in Chicago. For you specifically, they want you to dominate the boards, use your physicality to close the lane, and then blend into the offense by making timely passes and taking advantage of scoring opportunities when presented. There are plenty of scorers on the roster, mostly guards and wings.
Yeah, I know when you come (to play for Team USA) your role changes. Me, being a running big man, rim to rim, that doesn’t really play to my advantage. I’m never going to be able to just “wow” you playing that type of way. At times I can play that way. They keep telling me to run, run, run.
What is it like playing for Krzyzewski?
It’s different. I can’t say I can’t run, because at Kentucky we ran. I am not sure know what my role is. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
(At this point, Cousins’ friend Andrew Rogers joins us and displays tweets from ESPN and other news outlets indicating that Colangelo and Krzyzewski favored Plumlee over Cousins. My sources suggested that the competition among Cousins, Drummond and Plumlee remained wide open and that Friday’s scrimmage and ensuing exhibitions would be crucial. Yet when he saw the tweets, Cousins appeared visibly shaken.)
Have you heard anything about your chances?
Nothing. They don’t really tell us much. I saw Coach K in the elevator, but we just chatted.
How disappointed would you be if you don’t make the team?
I would be crushed. Everyone knows how much I want to do this. This is my third year here (two with Select Team), and I don’t run from any challenge. I would be crushed, but I’m not a quitter. I would come back and try again.
Let’s change the subject for a moment. What is your assessment of the Kings’ offseason? Your front office declined to match an offer for Isaiah Thomas that started at $7.2 million, acquired free agent Darren Collison, drafted shooting guard Nik Stauskas, reached agreement on one-year deals with Omri Casspi and Eric Moreland, and is hopeful of bringing back Quincy Acy. Oh, and Rudy Gay opted in for $19 million. There are still too many undersize power forwards on the roster, and as the critics keep reiterating, you need an athletic, lengthy forward on the frontcourt. So how much better is this team?
I love what we’re doing. Love what we’re doing. Pete (D’Alessandro), he’s real aggressive, going after stuff, trying for players we probably have no chance at getting. One of these times we’re going to get lucky, and in the past we wouldn’t do that. Do you know how good that feels? Since Vivek (Ranadive), Pete, Michael (Malone), Mullie (Chris Mullin), Mitch (Richmond) and those guys walked through the damn door, things have been on the rise. I am totally behind it. Michael is like me; he sees everything in black and white. I love the fact Pete keeps trying stuff. I am totally behind all this. Rudy, the Collison move, thinking Omri (Casspi) can stretch the floor. And the rookie, that kid Stauskas can really play. He makes the game easy and has an impact even when he’s not scoring. I am so happy to be a part of this, of what we’re doing.
When you first came to the Kings, your former agent boasted about your passing ability. He actually compared you with Bill Walton, which was more than a little bit of a stretch. Yet you have thrown a number of perfect outlet passes these past few days that led to dunks or layups. Why haven’t you thrown more of those with the Kings?
A guy I used to throw a lot of them to was Marcus Thornton. He was quick, just throw it straight out and he would get it. Ben (McLemore) could be that guy. And there were times in practice during the summer league when I would get it off the board, take two dribbles, throw a bounce pass to Moreland for a dunk. Stauskas can get out and run, too. He’s not like a Ben or Moreland, but the thing I like about him, he is always about making the right play. That’s going to help us out a lot.
Malone is emphasizing playing at a faster pace for the upcoming season, which requires body and ball movement, and being in superior shape. Sort of like what you’re hearing from Krzyzewski. Another of my pet peeves, of course, is the recurring Kings theme of dribbling dents into the floor. Can this team as currently constructed make the transition mentally as well as physically?
Yeah, I think so. I was always taught (that) the ball, when passed, moves faster than the body. There were times when I played for Otis Hughley in high school, I would rebound and outlet the ball, and it was bam, bam, bam, we ran and we scored. Kentucky, same thing. Then I get to the Kings, and I’m standing in the low post, and everybody’s standing around, watching me, or dribbling the ball, and maybe we get a shot off or maybe not. And we got so caught up in labels, “Well, he’s a power forward, so he can’t do that.” Or, “He’s a shooting guard, so he can’t do that.” I’m like … take advantage of our (versatility). And we are getting more versatile players who really think the game. Man, I just love Sacramento. I am so happy to be a part of this.
How come you moved out to Granite Bay? When you lived in Natomas, you were blocks from the arena and within a few miles of the downtown sports and entertainment complex.
(Laughs). Kids were coming up and knocking on my door at all hours. They wanted me to (laughs) come out and play. Some of them were the same kids day after day! People were driving to my house, too, and stopping over. Everybody knew where I lived. It just got too crazy. People know me in Granite Bay, but they give me some space.
While you were preparing for Friday’s scrimmage at UNLV, demolition of the Downtown Plaza got underway in the wee hours. Have you paid much attention to the closing chapter of the arena saga? You and Jason Thompson endured the protracted Anaheim/Seattle relocation speculation and ongoing franchise uncertainty throughout your first few NBA seasons. Any thoughts on the final, final, final arena resolution?
Oh, man, I am so happy. I feel like this is a whole new beginning for me and the Kings. My pro career … it all started off so bad. It was this after this after this. Then we went into the lockout. It was rough; it was really rough. And I’m only 23 (he turns 24 on Aug. 13), but I feel like I am so far behind.
In what way? Again, 23?
Well, look at the younger guys. Anthony Davis. He is on a team with Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson; on paper it fits. We are still looking for players that fit.
So before you go, give me a quick hit on some of your NBA colleagues besides Durant that you scrimmaged with or against these last few days.
Steph Curry … he is just so creative with the ball. It’s one thing to see it on TV, and one thing to play with him in a game. I’m not saying I never knew how good he was, but being here, playing with him, watching him direct a team, like “wow.” Sometimes I’m playing or sitting with his teammate Klay (Thompson), and we’re both, “Wow, did we see that?” Just Steph’s ability to make plays, lead a team of great players.
Do you feel you’re one those great players?
I definitely feel I’m there. But it’s not up to me. I know I can help this team. I know I can. There is nothing on the floor I can’t do. If you want me to become that runner, I’ll become the runner to the best of my ability. I will do whatever they ask.