Isaiah Cousins spent the first days of summer league nursing a strained groin, calming his nerves and then practicing with the Kings for his unofficial NBA debut.
In other words, this is a rush job.
With only two games remaining for the Kings in the desert – and the number reduced to one after Wednesday’s 81-61 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Cox Pavilion – the second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma decided to play and peel away at the rust.
“I think he was a little anxious to show what he can do, to play, but physically he’s not ready to play,” said assistant coach Bryan Gates. “When you hurt your groin, with the speed of the game, the emotion of playing, it’s hard. You need a couple weeks of practice and playing to find a rhythm. But he got a good feel, got hit on a few pick-and-rolls. He was aggressive early, but I liked his approach, (though) maybe he could play a little more under control.”
Summer league statistics are often irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. Players want the ball in their hands because they think that’s the best way to impress their potential bosses, which leads to far too much dribbling and one-on-one displays, and means those attending the games should be forewarned. Those expecting anything resembling those exquisite passing sequences the Spurs and Warriors and the (real) Hawks are known for better save that thought for November.
But that doesn’t mean Cousins, who is competing for a roster spot as a backup point guard, didn’t give it his best shot Wednesday. He missed seven of his eight field-goal attempts, committed three turnovers, but led the Kings with six assists.
With Gates repeatedly urging him to “push it,” Cousins responded by pushing the pace and moving the ball more quickly, at times finding teammates in their preferred spots. His most impressive stretch occurred early in the third quarter when he connected with center Willie Cauley-Stein for a lob, and on the next next possession whipped a pass across the lane to center Georgios Papagiannis for a right-handed half hook.
“He could have distributed more, but he’s young,” said Kings player personnel director Peja Stojakovic, with a grin. “This is the time to try different things, experiment. And then players come down to planet earth when training camp starts.”
Cousins, who was paired in the Sooners’ backcourt last season with the prolific Buddy Hield, is adjusting to the point guard role. Selected 59th and second-to-last in last month’s NBA draft, Cousins has spent much of his career as a shooting guard and, admittedly, occasionally grapples with the decision of when to shoot and when to pass.
In his senior season – an NBA anomaly these days – Cousins averaged 12.6 points, 4.5 assists and 1.4 steals.
“Coach (Lon) Kruger worked with me last year (at Oklahoma), getting me used to the process of thinking like a point guard because he knew that’s what I would have to be at the next level,” Cousins said. “He actually recruited me as a point guard, but then he told me to just go out and play. But like he knew, the NBA is just different. New systems, better players.”
The Kings’ search for a long-term solution at point guard has been one of the main subplots of the past decade. They come, they go, for various reasons. Beno Udrih. Tyreke Evans. Greivis Vasquez. Ray McCallum. Aaron Brooks. Jimmer Fredette. The diminutive Isaiah Thomas, who otherwise is known as “the one who got away.”
With Rajon Rondo having signed an unrestricted free-agent contract with the Chicago Bulls, veteran Darren Collison is the presumed starter in 2016-17. But he, too, becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season.
Kings general manager Vlade Divac continues to reiterate his intention to upgrade and stabilize the position during the offseason, with veterans Kosta Koufos, Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore among the team’s most likely trade prospects. Meantime, Cousins has one more game before training camp.
“I actually think I played pretty good today, but my shot was flat,” he said. “Once my shot gets going, everything opens up. I think it will be exciting.”