Ailene Voisin: Cousins continues to put best foot forward

After three days of training with Team USA, DeMarcus Cousins has no clue whether he has impressed or disappointed, or enhanced or diminished his prospects for the squad that will compete in the 2014 FIBA World Cup next month in Spain.

The suspense isn’t keeping him up at night. A sore left thigh has caused a few moments of angst. But the Kings center is as curious as the next guy, or in this case, as several of the 18 players attempting to make the final roster.

Kevin Durant, of course, is a lock. Steph Curry and Derrick Rose could catch a cold and still catch the flight to Madrid. There are so many talented guards and wing players from which to choose, coach Mike Krzyzewski and USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo could close their eyes, roll the dice, and still come out winners.

Deciding which of the other “bigs” – the one to run alongside Anthony Davis, another virtual shoo-in – is another matter.

“You start with a core group of seven or eight,” Colangelo said Wednesday after practice, “and then you look at what players you have to fill certain roles. A shooter. An energy guy. Another big. That’s the thing we’re still talking about. Anthony (Davis) has put on 20 pounds. He’s strong. I think that’s going to be very important from a physical standout. Each of the other ‘bigs’ have unique skills. We’re trying to figure out what we want.”

Cousins’ major competition is Detroit center Andre Drummond and Brooklyn power forward Mason Plumlee. The challenge from Drummond, a physical presence at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, was expected. But Plumlee has emerged as something of a sleeper candidate. The 6-11, 235-pounder, who was promoted from the Select Team on Tuesday, intrigues USAB officials with his lively defense and mobility. His college pedigree can’t hurt his cause, either; he played for Krzyzewski at Duke.

Yet Cousins isn’t easy to ignore. He enjoyed an exceptional, at times dominant opening day practice Monday, struggled Tuesday after absorbing a knee to his left thigh, but was more active Wednesday.

“My thigh was killing me Tuesday, but I took an ice bath before practice today,” he said. “While it was still sore, I felt more like myself. Hopefully that came across.”

Scrimmaging with the white-clad squad led by Curry and featuring James Harden, Kenneth Faried, and DeMar DeRozan, Cousins grabbed rebounds, launched beautiful outlet passes, contested shots at the rim, and extended his arms to challenge several midrange jumpers attempted by the rangy, supremely athletic Davis. The noticeable uptick in Cousins’ energy level was no less important than the display of his considerable skill set.

Assuming his demeanor remains a non-issue – and his attitude was a non-factor when he appeared with the Select Team a year ago – USAB officials have yet to be convinced of two things: That Cousins can control the paint defensively and mentally and physically adapt to Krzyzewski’s fast-paced offense; playing uptempo is as much a mindset as it is a physical exercise, and for Cousins, who still too often trails a play, with his sore thigh clearly a factor Wednesday, this is a relatively new experience.

“He’s trying to figure it out,” said Monty Williams, the New Orleans Pelicans coach and Team USA assistant. “The way Sac plays … it’s not a walk-up style … but the play goes through DeMarcus. We’re trying to get the ball down the floor in about three or four seconds, and we’ve got the guys who can do it.”

Though Plumlee received decent playing time and seemingly has thrust himself into the mix, Cousins on Wednesday again received favorable reviews. “DeMarcus was better today,” Colangelo noted.

Similar sentiments were offered both on and off the record by several other NBA/USAB/college types, several of whom sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the overflowing bleachers. The audience was a veritable Who’s Who from the world of college and professional basketball, and included Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro and coach Michael Malone, coaches Lionel Hollins, Steve Kerr and David Blatt, general managers Bob Myers and David Griffin, and college coaches Mark Few and John Calipari, to name a few.

After the three-hour session, Calipari, who has four of his former players participating – including Cousins – worked the gym like a politician on the campaign trail. He darted from Davis to Rose to John Wall, then caught up with the Kings star while he was being stretched by a USAB trainer on a table in the far corner. The two chatted for several minutes, joking, reminiscing, playfully arguing over who was expected to pick up the dinner tab later in the evening.

D’Alessandro approached and praised his star for his effort.

“I saw DeMarcus showing the player we know he can be,” said the Kings executive. “I told him, ‘Your talent goes without question. Everyone in this building knows how talented you are. The other things you’re doing, you need to continue doing them. Diving for loose balls. Running the floor. Defending. Being a good teammate, putting your arms around the guys.’ I saw a lot of that from him today.”

But will be it be enough? Initial cuts are anticipated after the Friday night scrimmage, with additional training sessions planned back East. Asked about the competition and his chances, Cousins shrugged. Drummond. Plumlee. Faried. Not his issue.

“If they like what they see, they put you on the team,” he said. “Hopefully I make it. If I don’t, I’ll accept it. But I will never take it as giving up.”