Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins growing up into star role

Bulls center Joakim Noah takes a shot to the face from a driving DeMarcus Cousins on Thursday. “DeMarcus is better,” said Noah. “I feel sometimes he gets frustrated and that works in our favor. I feel this year, he’s the one getting guys frustrated, and it’s worked for them.”
Bulls center Joakim Noah takes a shot to the face from a driving DeMarcus Cousins on Thursday. “DeMarcus is better,” said Noah. “I feel sometimes he gets frustrated and that works in our favor. I feel this year, he’s the one getting guys frustrated, and it’s worked for them.” The Associated Press

Eventually this was going to happen. DeMarcus Cousins is too talented, too competitive, too intelligent – too damn good – to squander his enormous gifts and establish permanent residency on the NBA’s list of knuckleheads.

And this is happening. For the first time in his pro career, the Kings’ fifth-year center is drawing national attention for all the right reasons: his on-court leadership and All-Star-caliber production.

ESPN. TNT. Bloggers du jour. Opposing players and coaches. Hall of Famers. Perhaps most impressive are the impassioned endorsements Cousins is receiving from his teammates.

“DeMarcus is a beast,” Kings point guard Darren Collison said before his team left for a four-game trip that begins Saturday in Minnesota. “He will find a way, will his way to score, or will his way to win. Guys want to play with people like that.”

Rudy Gay said Cousins’ presence and their improved relationship influenced his decision to sign a three-year contract extension. Omri Casspi, who played for the Kings during Cousins’ turbulent rookie season, simply shakes his head and speaks in soft, awed phrases when asked about this older, wiser center.

Occasionally, visiting journalists drop into town and revisit the narrative depicting the 6-foot-11 center as misunderstood, recite the unflattering reputation that has dogged him since high school, or portray him as the victim of a poor supporting cast, subpar coaching and a dysfunctional organization under the Kings’ previous ownership. While there are elements of truth in all of the above, Cousins, 24, has always been far more nuanced than his muscular frame and outsized personality suggest. He is a boyish man of round parts and unpolished angles, of dramatic mood swings and inquisitive intellect, and similar to other elite NBA centers of both the past and present, he can’t be squeezed into a neat, tidy NBA package.

He fascinates and confounds; it is still almost painful to watch him battle his emotions when questionable fouls are called. But as he proved again during Thursday’s victory over the Chicago Bulls, he more often infuriates his opponents these days, not his teammates or coaches.

“DeMarcus is better,” said Bulls center Joakim Noah, who threw a foot-stomping temper tantrum after drawing a foul and losing a rebound to Cousins. “I feel sometimes he gets frustrated and that works in our favor. I feel this year, he’s the one getting guys frustrated, and it’s worked for them.”

Cousins’ performance against the Bulls has become the norm, not the exception, and in this league, consistency changes everything. Besides entering the weekend ranked sixth in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), he is ninth in the league in scoring (22.5 points), third in rebounding (11.8) and is shooting 50 percent in 30.8 minutes per game. Additionally, his increase in blocked shots (1.42) and contested field goals reflect his improving footwork and defensive commitment, though he still commits too many reaching fouls and has fouled out of two games.

The other concern is his assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9 to 3.3), though in fairness to Cousins, who is a creative and willing passer, many of his turnovers occur when the offense stagnates and he attempts to force the action. His post moves also are quicker, craftier and less predictable; he is both eluding and stepping through defenders, scoring with either hand and at both sides of the rim, many times finishing while absorbing contact and earning a free throw.

“He’s a hard guy to stop,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, an assistant on the U.S. team that included Cousins and Gay. “That’s why you shouldn’t really formulate an opinion until you work with somebody and get around him. He was terrific. He is as talented as they come. The last game with Team USA (against Serbia), he was unbelievable. He carried the load. And I think he’s setting the tone for the team here.”

Cousins, who lingers at his locker long after games, dissecting possessions and performances both on and off camera, is a social media fanatic who uses slights – real or imagined – as motivation. But he visibly brightens when he hears opposing coaches or players praise him and when a former Kings standout offers favorable thoughts.

Brad Miller, one of the most accomplished passing centers of his generation, cited a sampling of Cousins’ passes during the recent homestand: the crosscourt passes whipped to Ben McLemore in the corners, quick-hits to Casspi on backcuts, a looping pass over the top to Gay, and the highlight of Thursday’s nationally televised game on TNT.

Cousins collected one of his defensive rebounds, took a few dribbles, then two-handed a pass to McLemore for a breakout dunk that electrified the sellout crowd.

“Teams want to double- and triple-team DeMarcus all the time,” said Miller, who recently moved back to Sacramento from his native Indiana, “but I told him, ‘Let them double- and triple-team all night.’ He’s going to throw passes and find cutters out of it, which is different from last year and is a real sign of growth.”

True, it’s early. But the Kings will take a winning record (7-5) over the alternative. Cousins deflects much of the team’s progress to coach Michael Malone and the altered roster, foremost the acquisition of Collison, a more conventional point guard than the departed Isaiah Thomas.

“We’re getting there,” Cousins said quietly the other night, “but we have a long way to go. We can be so much better. I really do believe we have the talent now to make a run at the playoffs.”

The grueling chase is on, and of course, it starts with Cousins.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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