On this warm, wet afternoon in the desert, DeMarcus Cousins sprinted toward the most significant few weeks of his professional career and, perhaps, of his young life.
The choice is his. The global stage awaits. The question hovers.
Is he ready to take his show on the road – to accompany the 2014 U.S. men’s national team to the FIBA World Cup next month in Spain – or will he let this gold medal opportunity slip through his undeniably capable fingers?
Cousins, who turns 24 on Aug. 13, has been here before. Sort of. This is his third appearance at the Team USA training camp, but his first as a contender for a roster spot. In previous summers, he was invited to scrimmage his NBA elders and prep the big boys for the upcoming world tournament and Olympics. Now, he has a chance to prove he’s all grown up, that his 6-foot-11, 270-pound frame can anchor a squad depleted the previous 48 hours by the withdrawals of power forwards Kevin Love and Blake Griffin.
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“We have to have active bigs,” Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the opening practice. “Our main guy is Anthony Davis. Then we have to see who else fits in, but also how they fit in with the other guys. (Cousins) has continued to get into better shape. We love the fact he’s committed. He’s trying like crazy. He’s come (to the training session) multiple times. That level of commitment is not just to be admired, it needs to be talked about.”
But here’s what Team USA officials won’t say: They won’t say they really need Cousins – although they do, particularly if both Gasol brothers compete in Madrid – because they want to see if he fits in and hear what he has to say or, rather, what he doesn’t have to say. In essence, the fifth-year center must refrain from griping at referees and earning the technical fouls that account for much of his baggage, while proving he can be both a dominating presence and an agreeable, accommodating teammate.
The cautionary wait-and-see approach makes perfect sense for another important reason. The earth is not a hospitable planet right now. USA Basketball officials are acutely aware of the political unrest in Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East, among other hot spots, and are intent on portraying a favorable American image overseas. Similar to the executives who debated Charles Barkley’s presence before naming the future Hall of Fame forward to the 1992 Dream Team, members of the current hierarchy want to be convinced that Cousins can fulfill his duties as a good citizen.
“I had a personal conversation with DeMarcus (Sunday) afternoon, just to get a read, and also to encourage him,” said Jerry Colangelo, USAB’s longtime executive director. “The opportunity is here. It is. And you know, every time there is adversity, players drop off or get hurt, it opens up for a number of other people. We have a lot of talent, versatility, length. And yet we have to cover ourselves as it relates to bigs. So he’s in good position, and I think he really wants to make this team.”
Actually, Cousins is obsessed with making this team. He practiced with the Kings during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, then returned to Los Angeles and resumed his training. Colangelo and Krzyzewksi judged him to be in “pretty good shape” on an opening day that included almost an hour of scrimmaging. Starting on a white-clad squad that featured Stephen Curry, John Wall, Gordon Hayward and Kenneth Faried, Cousins occasionally struggled to run the floor – a historically weak part of his game – but was impressive overall and, for long stretches, was the best player on the court.
He blocked a baseline jumper by Paul George and, in an ensuing sequence, slid over from the weak side and swatted a drive by James Harden. Before calling it an afternoon, he attacked the basket for a one-bounce, double-pump dunk, converted six free throws, swiped a handful of defensive rebounds, threw away one pass but then grabbed another rebound and threw a perfect baseball pass to Hayward for another jam.
During timeouts and after substitutions, Cousins sat on the bench alongside Wall and Curry, listening intently as the Warriors star pointed toward a specific area of the floor. Afterward, he joined Curry and Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson in a long-distance shooting contest and anointed himself the newest member of the “Splash Brothers.”
“I finished third,” Cousins joked as a grin slowly creased his features, “but I’m not going to take it as a negative thing. I’m going to take it as I’m the third-best shooter in the gym.”
Any cause for concern following the session had more to do with Cousins’ physical well-being than anything. He was stretched by a Team USA trainer for an unusually long period, then walked gingerly toward his belongings, at one point wincing noticeably. Asked how he felt, Cousins admitted to being a little winded from his first five-on-five contact in a few weeks but said he was otherwise fine.
Traditionally, of course, the durable center plays through the bumps and bruises that routinely send many of his colleagues into training rooms, so it would take a lot for him to take a seat. His well-chronicled previous behavior issues aside, this is an intuitively bright, intensely competitive player who can be an engaging, insightful personality, and he makes no attempt to hide his desire to play for his country. His ongoing challenge remains this: to channel his anger and intensity into positive, effective elements of his game.
This is that chance. This should be his time. If not a do-over, he can recast his image, alter his reputation, earn a berth on the World Cup team, introduce himself favorably on the global stage and participate in an overseas experience that for dozens of his NBA predecessors – Barkley among them – was professionally transformational and personally enlightening. (Charles owned Barcelona and was the superstar of the Games, according to the late coach Chuck Daly.)
“Coach K came in and told us that a lot of guys say, ‘Leave your egos at the door,’ ” related Cousins as he leaned back in a chair, his sneakers off, his T-shirt drenched. “I believe what he wants from me is to be a physical specimen, be a defensive anchor, control the paint. Be a dominant force in there.”
Or, as Colangelo reiterated earlier in the day referring to the thinned ranks that include Faried and Andre Drummond, “We’re looking for somebody (among the bigs) to ‘wow’ us.”
So there it is, all within his grasp. The blueprint, the game plan, the map of Spain. The rest is up to him.