Sacramento Kings

Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins in Skills Challenge shows game’s big evolution

Kings center DeMarcus Cousins scrambles for the ball with Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin on Monday, January 25, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. Cousins scored a career-high 56 points during the Kings’ 129-128 double overtime loss.
Kings center DeMarcus Cousins scrambles for the ball with Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lin on Monday, January 25, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. Cousins scored a career-high 56 points during the Kings’ 129-128 double overtime loss. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The small-ball revolution in the NBA would seem to leave the big guys feeling like outsiders.

It’s tough being a center in the modern era, especially when the league no longer recognizes the position on the All-Star Game ballot. None of the 10 starters in Sunday’s game at Air Canada Centre is a center.

But some of the NBA’s “bigs” are standing tall and refuse to be forced into extinction. They’ve adapted – playing away from the rim and facing the basket – and some of the better big men plan to show that during the Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday Night.

Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins is one of four frontcourt players who will participate in the Skills Challenge. The event uses an obstacle course that tests a player’s dribbling, passing and three-point shooting abilities. In a previous era, those skills were not expected of big men.

Today, big men are showing they can do more than simply stand around the basket.

“I think we have a great chance of surprising people,” Cousins said.

Today, big men are showing they can do more than simply stand around the basket.

As the NBA has evolved, the game has become more about spacing the floor, increased pace on offense and versatility. Teams such as the defending champion Golden State Warriors are comfortable without a traditional center on the court.

Conversely, today’s bigger players are comfortable with the ball in their hands after expanding their games beyond the paint at an early age.

“Of course I liked watching Shaq (O’Neal), but the guy I really modeled my game after was Carmelo Anthony,” Cousins said Friday at media day.

As the nation’s top high school center in Mobile, Ala., eight years ago, Cousins wanted to play more like a small forward than a center. It’s as if Cousins is a perimeter player trapped inside a 6-foot-11, 270-pound body.

“His skill set is not normal for a big dude,” said Sacramento Mayor and three-time All-Star guard Kevin Johnson. “(He’s) shooting the three this year, handling the ball. You watch him down on the block, and his footwork is exceptional. It just shows me he’s a special player.”

Some big men, like New Orleans All-Star Anthony Davis, first developed their perimeter skills while playing guard on youth basketball teams. They switched positions after growth spurts.

That’s not the case with Cousins. He’s always played the role of a big man, though he does not want to be labeled as one.

“(Cousins) just naturally has a lot of skills that very few big men have ever had,” Johnson said. “And a lot of that is a testament to his genes and what he learned at Kentucky and growing up. It’s exceptional.”

Johnson added that big men like Cousins work hard in practice to become all-around players and shoot the three as well as dominate the boards.

“He doesn’t get enough credit,” Johnson said. “You just don’t magically do that stuff. He’s more of a student of the game than people think.”

The other frontcourt players in the Skills Challenge are Davis, Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns and Golden State power forward Draymond Green.

“It’s just the way the game has evolved,” Davis said. “There is no traditional big man anymore. Everybody can handle the ball, or shoot or start an offense.”

But not all bigs can play like Cousins or Davis. Centers without three-point range still have value in the league.

He doesn’t get enough credit. You just don’t magically do that stuff. He’s more of a student of the game than people think.

Sacramento Mayor and three-time All-Star guard Kevin Johnson, on DeMarcus Cousins

At 6-11, Detroit’s Andre Drummond is an All-Star because he leads the NBA in rebounding (14.9 per game), with nearly all his offense coming around the rim.

“Everybody’s different,” Drummond said. “For me, I just stick to what I’m good at. Whenever that (modern) aspect of my game comes around, it’ll come. It’s good to see the big men are really working on their game outside of the paint.”

Cousins has always worked on his game away from the basket. He’s learned how to handle the ball and use his footwork to get closer to the rim for better looks.

Cousins said it helped that his coaches never tried to anchor him around the basket full time. The three-pointer has become more a part of his game through his six seasons in Sacramento. As a rookie in 2010-11, Cousins made just 3 of 18 attempts (16.7 percent) beyond the arc. In 44 games this season, he’s made 52 of 149 (34.9 percent).

“I was lucky enough to have coaches who were open minded and didn’t try to keep me in a box,” Cousins said. “They helped me expand my game, and they embraced it. I think that helped me in the long run, and that’s why I’m the player I am now.”

Among the guards competing in the Skills Challenge will be Cousins’ former Kings teammate, Isaiah Thomas, now an All-Star with Boston.

He predicted Cousins will have success in the bracket-style competition.

“He’s probably going to upset a few people because he can do everything a guard can do,” Thomas said.

And what if it comes down to Thomas and Cousins?

“If we do face each other, the friendship is on the line,” Thomas joked.

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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