During these past three offseasons, DeMarcus Cousins stumbled early, recovered nicely and, late last summer, took one giant, global leap. He sipped the red, white and blue soda, spun lemons into a FIBA World Cup gold medal, and eventually turned his former critics at USA Basketball into allies and advocates.
The Kings’ All-Star center saved his best for last: He dominated the interior when starter Anthony Davis got into early foul trouble in the World Cup finale against Serbia – with Serbian icon and his future boss, Vlade Divac, in the audience – and hopes the momentum persists.
His next stop? Team USA’s minicamp next week in Las Vegas. His next step? A berth on the 12-man squad for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That’s the plan, anyway, though the numbers suggest a tight squeeze and an intense struggle.
Cousins and Rudy Gay are among the 34 NBA players invited to participate in the three-day session that consists of meetings, non-contact workouts and a scrimmage Thursday. Attendance is mandatory for every candidate for Mike Krzyzewski’s Olympic roster, though the degree of involvement varies.
LeBron James is expected to attend the opening dinner and return to Cleveland for a previous engagement. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Chandler Parsons and Paul George, all recovering from injuries or surgeries, will be at the meetings but only observe scrimmages. And though Derrick Rose and Damian Lillard rejected overtures from Team USA officials, centers Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and LaMarcus Aldridge accepted invitations.
“We have a lot of great players who are interested,” said Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo, noting that 11 of the 12 World Cup team members are participating, along with eight members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic gold medal team. “We started with the concept that this is going to be a very light camp, very loosey-goosey, as much a review and celebration of what we have accomplished since 2006 as anything. And when I say that Thursday’s scrimmage will be like an All-Star Game (matador defense, not much contact), I’m not kidding. It will be very different from what we have done in the past.”
USAB officials began re-evaluating and ultimately tempered their offseason training routine after George suffered a ghastly leg fracture during the intrasquad scrimmage last summer at the Thomas & Mack Center. Durant, who was bothered by foot issues at the time, withdrew from the national team shortly thereafter. Several other players were visibly shaken while watching the Indiana Pacers forward, in excruciating pain after colliding with the basket support, placed on a stretcher and transported to a nearby hospital for surgery.
11 Members of the United States’ World Cup team out of 12 who will participate in next week’s minicamp in Las Vegas
The concern didn’t end that weekend or with that freak injury. Though the men’s senior national teams have been surprisingly healthy since American pros became eligible for international competition at the 1992 Barcelona Games, an increasing number of NBA team owners and executives are questioning the wisdom of allowing highly compensated veterans to train and compete in international tournaments after a grueling season.
Colangelo, whose national team has compiled a 52-1 record in official competitions since he assumed control of the program in 2006, is listening but saying little. Early last week, he reiterated that he is tabling discussions about any potential makeover until after the 2016 Games, when longtime coach Krzyzewski steps down and the process will be re-evaluated. But significant changes are anticipated, possibly including an age limit that restricts participation to NBA stars in their early 20s.
Meantime, while Gay faces intense competition from a list of candidates that is overloaded with elite guards and wings, Cousins’ prospects for reaching Rio appear much better for several reasons. The sixth-year pro was solid as Davis’ primary backup and, when pressed into early action in the World Cup finale, dominated the interior with his rebounding, shotblocking and muscular presence. He ranked ahead of Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee on Krzyzewski’s depth chart. And besides being named to his first All-Star team this past season, the 6-foot-11 Cousins, who was well-liked by his World Cup teammates, is widely regarded as the best big man in the NBA.
52-1 Team USA’s record since Jerry Colangelo assumed control of the program in 2006
But his encore challenge includes at least one factor beyond his control, namely, whether Krzyzewski opts for a conventional roster or goes with a smaller, quicker, more versatile group. Historically, this has been a guessing game with the longtime Duke coach. Though all his teams play fast, he routinely alters the composition of his squads, depending upon the competition. A year ago, for instance, with Pau and Marc Gasol representing the host country, he bolstered Davis and Cousins with Drummond and Plumlee instead of shooters and ballhandlers.
“We went with bigs in the World Cup,” recalled Colangelo, “and that worked to Cousins’ strength. And, by the way, because he is continuing to develop as a player, I think he has a great opportunity in front of him. The experience he had with us last summer was huge. Winning the gold medal and experiencing success was huge. That stuff rubs off. At this stage, though, it’s premature to say who has the best shot, who has the best chance at being one of the 15 or 16 we probably invite to camp next summer.”
As Colangelo noted, a number of players routinely withdraw because of injuries, personal issues or uncertain contract situations, while others enhance their status with exceptional NBA seasons – on and off the court. In other words, in Cousins’ case, the fewer technicals the better; Colangelo and Krzyzewski will be watching.
“Look, DeMarcus is making progress,” added Colangelo, “and I want him to continue moving up in his career. Winning changes a lot of things. And 12 months is a long time. A lot of this stuff will take care of itself.”