Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Cousins rightfully survives opening round of Team USA cuts

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

Admittedly, the image of Kings center DeMarcus Cousins posing as a “sponge” is a little difficult to wrap your arms around. At 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds, this is a big, imposing man. But those are his words. And that was his intent. He attended the Team USA training camp in Las Vegas last week to pester, dominate and, occasionally, even imitate some of the NBA’s elite players.

OK, he wasn’t so great at the imitations. His attempt to replicate Kevin Durant’s escape dribble and jumper from the right arc during a post-practice scrimmage late last week provoked howls of playful derision from several other Team USA candidates.

“It was crazy,” Cousins admitted, laughing. “It was a KD move. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

What he is thinking right now is this: His reign in Spain isn’t assured yet. His overseas travel plans are still on hold. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mke Krzyzewski still have to trim four players for the 12-man roster that travels overseas for the FIBA World Cup that begins Aug. 30.

But based on his performances in the opening week of camp, the Kings’ center survived Tuesday’s opening round of cuts and bought himself ample time to impress the bosses further and prove that, while he isn’t Kevin Durant, he can be a nice complement to the Oklahoma City superstar and undisputed Team USA leader.

“All the coaches were really pleased with DeMarcus and how he played,” Krzyzewski said Tuesday during a teleconference. “Look, his attitude is tremendous because he wouldn’t keep coming back to be a part of Team USA if it didn’t mean something to him. We recognize that. He was in good shape. He played well. He was talking on defense. He was our leading rebounder (in Friday’s scrimmage) and he can pass out of the low post. He gives us a ‘big’ that is different than Anthony Davis.”

And it’s not as if “bigs” are in abundance. With the springy Davis a virtual lock for the final roster, Cousins is competing against Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Brooklyn’s Mason Plumlee to be the backup center. Here, too, comes another surprise. Based on the scrimmage alone, Plumlee, to the surprise of some, has emerged as the more formidable opponent.

While Cousins had 11 rebounds, scored 11 points that included a spectacular one-handed follow dunk, and threw a perfect outlet pass that Kyrie Irving tipped to James Harden for a layup Friday, Plumlee ran the floor, defended and scored 10 third-quarter points.

There is some sentiment among USA Basketball officials toward keeping all three players because of the size and length of Spain, which has Pau and Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, and Brazil, with Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Nene.

Regardless, as Colangelo reiterated last week when refuting published reports suggesting Plumlee was a shoo-in ahead of Cousins, the Kings’ center has the opportunity to earn his way onto the roster. If anything, some of the same USA Basketball officials who have had reservations about the former Kentucky standout are slowly, perhaps even grudgingly, gaining an appreciation for his considerable gifts and commitment.

Behavior has been a non-issue, on and off the court. Cousins has attached himself to two of the squad’s most influential players in Durant and Davis, and he often was observed intently discussing strategy with assistant coaches Monty Williams and Tom Thibodeau.

Paul George’s horrific injury notwithstanding – accompanied by another round of criticism from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban complaining FIBA and the International Olympic Committee make millions off the backs of NBA stars – the benefits Cousins is deriving from his national team experience cannot be quantified.

The center who has played for three coaches in his four years with the Kings is hearing a familiar message from a different, far more influential voice: Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Krzyzewski. As the week progressed, Cousins appeared to increasingly grasp the nuances of his potential Team USA role, namely complementing the prolific scoring guards and wings by dominating the boards, releasing the ball quickly, not lagging downcourt and maintaining a physical, consistent presence in the lane.

With a few exceptions Friday, when he seemed to tire in the third quarter – which makes it essential for him to be in even better condition for the next Team USA camp in Chicago – Cousins checked off all the boxes.

“I saw DeMarcus doing some of the things we know he can do,” said Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro, who attended the scrimmage with principal owner Vivek Ranadive, adviser Chris Mullin and TIBCO partner Roger Craig. “And we know what he can do. His ability to pass the ball – to be as big as he is and throw the touchdown pass – is a great skill that needs to be exploited, especially for a team like (USA) and for us, because we want to run, too. The fact he grabbed a rebound, took two steps and then outlet the ball instead of dribbling, that is a lethal combination. He just looks so much more polished, so dominant out there. And he seems to be realizing that, on this team, he doesn’t need to do everything. Just be who he is.”

If Cousins keeps this up, plays well in upcoming training camps in Chicago and New York, then caps the summer with a solid performance and/or a solid citizenship effort overseas, he will grab hold of his career, take two dribbles and accelerate a maturation process that will take him – and his Kings – to the next level.

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