Sacramento Kings

Ailene Voisin: After gold-medal summer, Cousins is key to Kings’ improvement

Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) cheers on teammates during a preseason game. They’ve noticed a difference in Cousins coming into this season that they hope will lead them to improvement.
Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) cheers on teammates during a preseason game. They’ve noticed a difference in Cousins coming into this season that they hope will lead them to improvement. hamezcua@sacbee.com

In what might have been the seminal summer of his career, DeMarcus Cousins went to Spain and came home a FIBA Basketball World Cup champion. He touched gold for the first time in his life, and for one of the few times he can recall he wasn’t the center of attention for negative, conflicting reasons.

That foxhole Team USA czar Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski dig before the Olympics and World Cup tournaments?

Cousins burrowed right in. He is one of their guys now. On basketball’s grandest international stage – and to the surprise of many – the Kings’ fifth-year center sketched the outlines of a potential image makeover.

He was elbowed and curbed his temper. He was used in a complementary role and devoured what was offered. He remained a booming, boyish presence but was appreciated by teammates and coaches. And when he subbed for the foul-plagued Anthony Davis and dictated the outcome against Serbia in the gold medal game – rebounding, running, shutting down the interior, delivering smart, crisp passes – he elevated his standards for an encore in Sacramento.

This should be his year, his season, his inaugural All-Star Game appearance. These are his Kings. They advance as far as he takes them. And forget about Spain. His community and his teammates and his owners would be satisfied with a massive stateside shove toward the club’s first playoff berth since 2006.

“I would be real disappointed if we don’t get there,” Cousins said, “because I think we’ve got a chance to be really good. We have more of the right pieces, players that fit better. It’s a matter of coming together. Look what Phoenix did last year.”

The Suns and Charlotte, too. Surprise, surprise.

While the Kings making the playoffs still is a stretch given the lack of length and interior defense at power forward, and uncertainty at shooting guard, offseason personnel and philosophical changes at least hint at an ascension. And who knows? Teams that play with pace tend to have more fun, which leads to more ball movement, body movement, unselfish play.

Rookie Nik Stauskas should improve the team’s spacing and shooting, particularly from three-point range. The point-guard combination of Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions ensures a faster tempo and a departure from the dreadful overdribbling and ball-dominant style of the past several years. Additionally, coach Michael Malone’s offensive schemes are designed to discourage defenders from double- and triple-teaming Cousins, who averaged 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds last season despite routinely being smothered in the lane.

“Last year, every possession played through DeMarcus,” said Malone, “and I don’t want that to happen. He is so skilled, sometimes he tries to do too much. That’s why we’re going to employ different offenses. Hopefully that gives us more ball movement and player movement, and it puts him in positions that work to his strengths and cuts down on the turnovers. Earlier in games, he’s got to be a facilitator, get everybody involved. And we’ll go to him in the end.”

Cousins’ value can’t be overstated. The Kings were 0-11 last season when he didn’t play. While adapting to new teammates and new schemes, it is also imperative that he charms officials and stops the histrionics that led to 16 technical fouls, tied for the league lead.

With that as the backdrop, Cousins joined Team USA for training in Las Vegas and forced his way onto the roster. No one wanted it more than he did. No one was more closely scrutinized than he was. Though he arrived in good shape, he worked himself into better shape, adjusting to Krzyzewski’s insistence that players rebound and immediately advance the ball, initiating the offense within five to seven seconds.

Back in his familiar role with the Kings, his next act will be to pull off the balancing act between being a primary scorer and involving his teammates, while establishing himself as an adequate or even above-average defender.

In the victory over Serbia, Cousins was like a moving van in the lane, swiping rebounds, contesting shots, blocking one drive with such force it was highlighted on ESPN’s website. More than anything, he reiterated the other day, he was pleased by his defense.

“When you hear, ‘Well, he’s not a good defensive player’ all the time, it kind of erodes your confidence,” Cousins said. “Team USA gave me a confidence boost on the defensive end, more than anything.”

His Kings teammates offer other observations, some more subtle than others.

Rudy Gay said he gained more appreciation of Cousins during their shared experience with Team USA. Collison refers to his new center as the “easiest big man to play with,” and adds, “I knew DeMarcus was a good passer, but I didn’t realize he was such a willing passer.” Forward Omri Casspi, back for a second tour with the Kings, admits he was “surprised” by Cousins’ maturation.

“DeMarcus is fun to play with,” Casspi said. “He’s a good passer, obviously a force inside. But he has just gotten better and better in every sense – work ethic, conditioning, in the locker room. I think we all expect him to have a great year.”

If Cousins responds accordingly?

The Kings can be entertaining and uplifting and threaten to shake up the Western Conference hierarchy. They could even make a push for the playoffs, or at the very least make life around Sleep Train Arena more interesting. That would be progress.

And Cousins would be an All-Star.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

COUSINS’ CAREER

Kings center DeMarcus Cousins has played four NBA seasons. Here’s a look at his key numbers and how the Kings fared each season:

YEAR PTS. REB. ASST. FG% FT% PF KINGS RECORD

2010-11 14.1 8.6 2.5 43.0 68.7 4.1 24-58

2011-12 18.1 11.0 1.6 44.8 70.2 4.0 22-44

2012-13 17.1 9.9 2.7 46.5 73.8 3.6 28-54

2013-14 22.7 11.7 2.9 49.6 72.6 3.8 28-54

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