When Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive anointed DeMarcus Cousins the team’s leader last year, it was a premature proclamation.
First, Cousins admittedly was still learning how to be a leader. Secondly, he hadn’t exactly had role models to show him how to be a leader in his first three seasons in Sacramento.
It also was unfair to ask a player still overcoming a reputation as a problem child to suddenly lead a chaotic locker room filled with players trying to prove themselves at the expense of team success.
More than a year later, Cousins is better equipped to assume a leadership role. He’s saying all the right things and, from all accounts, doing the right things as the Kings prepare for Sunday’s preseason opener against Toronto in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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Cousins’ evolution as a leader began toward the end of last season, when forward Reggie Evans arrived in a trade from Brooklyn. Cousins finally had a veteran he respected and could turn to with his issues.
Cousins then played for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. As a reserve, he was expected to provide defense and energy and fit into the team concept.
Now, Cousins talks about being the anchor of the defense, not having someone else handle that job. And Cousins wants to be a leader not just in title but in actions.
“Being a defensive anchor,” Cousins said when asked what he wanted to add to his game. “I really believe I can do it. Even besides that, just being the best leader I can be for this team. I know I’m not perfect and I probably never will be, but I’m aiming to be the best leader I can be for this team.”
Evans took to Instagram on Tuesday to keep the pressure on Cousins, posting a picture of a sign in Cousins’ locker that read “5 Technical,” as in technical fouls, for the 2014-15 season.
Cousins has been among the league leaders in technical fouls since entering the league and missed the season finale last season after picking up his 16th of the season.
“In order for me to be a better leader, I can’t be getting ejected, getting these technicals,” Cousins said. “Without me on the floor, it’s hard for this team to win games. (Evans) challenged me and told me no more than five this year, so I’m accepting the challenge.”
Tuesday afternoon, Cousins, Evans and new teammates Darren Collison and Ryan Hollins had lunch together. Cousins said it was an opportunity for him to ask about how other teams, winning teams, operate on and off the court.
Evans, Collison and Hollins have been around elite players such as Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Paul.
Cousins said he discussed what those teams did well and what the Kings could do to improve and how players on good teams prepare.
Hollins said for all the negatives describing Cousins, he sees a player doing all he can to become a winner.
“He’s a young kid, he means well, he wants to win,” Hollins said. “He’s learning, he’s passionate. He loves the game that he’s playing. He just has to learn how to go about it.”
In the offseason, the Kings supposedly were trying to find a shot-blocking power forward to play next to Cousins. Instead, they added Hollins, another center.
Cousins spent his first four seasons pointing out he wasn’t a great shot blocker (he averages a block a game for his career). Now, he wants to be the key to solidifying the Kings’ defense.
His time with Team USA showed him he could do that.
“I’m more confident being a defender,” Cousins said. “I always knew I could do it, but now I have the confidence. I don’t feel we need to go get a shot blocker because I feel I can be that person for this team. I might not be the greatest, but I feel I can be that anchor for this team.”
That’s what coach Michael Malone wants to hear from Cousins, who will have to play big on offense and defense if the Kings are to turn things around this season.
“I’ve told him with everything you’ve done this summer, when you get here, I don’t want you reverting back,” Malone said. “Challenge yourself to continue that upward mobility that you have, run the floor, talk the defense, sprint back, be disciplined. And if he can do that, more often than not, he’s going to be better off for it, and more importantly our team is going to be better off for it.”