Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: As Kings embark on long trip, all eyes are on Cousins

This is the week for Kings center DeMarcus Cousins to spit-shine his sneakers, fix his tie, brush the dog hair off his jacket, and for once or twice in his life, smile for the camera.

The NBA world is watching. The Kings are on a roll – albeit, a modest roll – and about to embark on a six-game trip to Indiana, Minnesota, Memphis, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Houston that should provide both clarity about the team and the All-Star prospects (some or none) of its talented young center.

Cousins, of course, desperately wants to be named to the Western Conference team for the annual classic Feb. 16 in New Orleans. While he trails several other candidates in fan voting that determines starters, he is chatting, charming, campaigning and hoping his big, booming game catches the attention of the coaches who select the reserves.

In his fourth season, he is averaging career highs in every pertinent category – including points (23.3), rebounds (11.5) and assists (3.1) – and shooting a career-best 49.4 percent. Monday, he was named the Western Conference Player of the Week, becoming the first King to be so recognized since Brad Miller in February 2008.

Cousins must be studying up on Kings centers as well; à la Miller and Vlade Divac, he insists he is getting a hoot out of his passes.

“I haven’t passed the ball like this since my rookie season,” he said. Asked what prompted the game change, he smiled and added, “Things weren’t like this before.”

While coaches usually discourage 6-foot-11, 270-pound centers from grabbing rebounds and dribbling upcourt, in the past week Cousins has directed several fast breaks and thrown at least one dazzling, on the move, no-look pass to Derrick Williams for a spectacular dunk. Cousins is tossing outlet passes, creating opportunities for newcomer Rudy Gay, more patiently searching for cutters in a half-court offense that too often becomes stagnant and predictable. He is making quicker moves, making plays that lead to winning streaks, even defending with greater enthusiasm.

After Friday’s victory over the Magic, one local writer half-jokingly asked Cousins if he had been invited to compete in the Skills Challenge during the Feb. 14-16 All-Star Weekend.

“I’d probably be the first big to ever do it,” he told The Bee’s Jason Jones. And that would be true. LeBron James is the only non-guard to participate since the skills contest began in 2003.

What Cousins really craves is the endorsement of the coaches or a phone call from league officials asking him to replace an injured player on the All-Star team. He wants recognition and validation. But he also believes he’s the game’s best center and has the numbers to prove it – he is in the top 10 in the league in scoring, rebounds and steals.

“I knew he was (gifted),” Gay said, “but you appreciate his skills more when you’re on the same court with him.”

Ah, yes, about those teammates, that body language, all the other stuff. Cousins’ overt attempts to overcome his image as a grumpy, difficult teammate might be the most impressive aspect of his evolution. He is trying. While he leads the league with 10 technicals and still barks at players for mistakes, he can be seen patting Jason Thompson on the back, praising Jimmer Fredette for converting 3-pointers, discussing tactics with Isaiah Thomas and rushing from the bench to congratulate the reserves for generating or sustaining rallies, never more so than during this modest winning streak.

“Do we have breakdowns?” coach Michael Malone asked rhetorically the other night. “Without a doubt. But our breakdowns are happening a little bit less often. We’re going to keep pounding that rock, try to get better every day, and not just be satisfied with winning three in a row.”

And Cousins? There’s nothing subtle about him. Never will be.

But if he is intent on becoming an All-Star, overcoming both his reputation and the long odds (the Western Conference is loaded with talented forwards), he needs to knock softly and let his big, booming skills take it from there.

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