Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: With DeMarcus Cousins ailing, addition of Kosta Koufos looms large

The Kings’ Kosta Koufos is fouled by Memphis’ Zach Randolph on Tuesday at Sleep Train Arena as Rajon Rondo watches.
The Kings’ Kosta Koufos is fouled by Memphis’ Zach Randolph on Tuesday at Sleep Train Arena as Rajon Rondo watches. hamezcua@sacbee.com

At 7 feet and 265 pounds, Kosta Koufos describes himself as a Ford that can reach the speeds of a Maserati on occasion.

He also says, with the candor of a straight shooter, that he was an above-average deep threat in high school, that he frequently brought the ball upcourt against the press, that he routinely surprised opponents with his offensive versatility.

And, yes, the temptation persists. Almost all NBA big men secretly want to be Magic Johnson or Steve Nash or Steph Curry, point guards who dazzle crowds with their wicked crossovers, crafty dribbling, game-clinching threes.

But Koufos, 26, is also a realist. After experimenting during his first few seasons, first under Jerry Sloan and later under George Karl, he cobbled together a mental list of strengths and weaknesses, of opportunities and dead ends, and devised his professional agenda accordingly. The result: When the Kings went shopping last summer for 7-footers to bolster a frontline that lacked length, depth and rim protection, the veteran free agent was a coveted commodity and near the top of their list.

Karl pushed hard for Koufos. Koufos pushed hard to reunite with Karl. Kings general manager Vlade Divac was an easy sell.

“Kosta and I were talking during the summer, and there were about five teams interested in signing him,” said Jack Greynolds, the boys varsity basketball coach at GlenOak High School, Koufos’ alma mater, in Canton, Ohio. “He mentioned that his best years were in Denver, and he said he would like to get back with Karl if he could.”

Kosta and I were talking during the summer, and there were about five teams interested in signing him. He mentioned that his best years were in Denver, and he said he would like to get back with (George) Karl if he could.

Jack Greynolds, Kosta Koufos’ high school coach in Canton, Ohio

With Koufos signing a four-year, $33-million guaranteed deal with a player option for the fourth year, and Divac drafting wiry Willie Cauley-Stein weeks earlier in the first round, the Kings’ frontline made a seismic shift to the positive side of the ledger. Once DeMarcus Cousins recovers from his sore Achilles’ – and he is sidelined for at least two more games – the bigs will be fine. Cauley-Stein complements the Kings’ All-Star center with his superb athleticism, defensive instincts and willingness to chew on the offensive leftovers. Koufos is a more polished wild card, because besides being an excellent pick-and-roll defender, solid rebounder and decent passer, he was only half-joking about the Maserati analogy. He runs the floor surprisingly well for someone his size.

The Kings’ current issues are elsewhere. The team that lacked outside shooting the past few seasons still struggles from the perimeter. The mini-backcourt of Darren Collison and Rajon Rondo has yet to consistently contain penetration and provide the active, energetic defense that dictates tempo and creates transition opportunities. The wings have been equally erratic.

“It’s one of those things where we have to tighten up defensively,” Koufos said. “We have to make some changes right now, take some responsibility for our own actions. We’ve a very talented team, and we’re going to have to play together.”

One of the most noticeable aspects of Koufos’ personality? Not much fazes him, not anymore. Born to parents who emigrated from Greece, he was enjoying a comfortable childhood when his world collapsed. His father, a prominent pediatric oncologist, died after his own struggle with cancer. Kosta was 9. His mother, a counselor at GlenOak until her recent retirement, raised her three children alone, aided by friends and relatives in the close-knit Greek community.

Koufos, who is fluent in Greek, became even more devoted to basketball, a game that suited his skinny frame and unusual height.

“I was an 11-pound baby,” he said. “Always a big guy. Always loved playing ball. When my dad passed away, it was a positive outlet for me. It took away some of the stress and sadness.”

While spending more and more time in the gym, Koufos gravitated toward Greynolds, who took over as coach during Kosta’s freshman season. And Greynolds, admittedly acting as surrogate father, swears his former big man isn’t spinning tall tales. Though he played Kosta in the post, his center broke the fullcourt press, drilled midrange jumpers, popped free for three-pointers, and eventually overcame his reputation as a reluctant long-distance runner.

After adding about six inches and several pounds, Koufos was among the most highly recruited high school stars in the country. He enrolled at Ohio State to remain close to his family, and a year later, was selected in the first round (23rd overall) by the Utah Jazz. His NBA portfolio includes subsequent stops in Minnesota, Denver and Memphis.

“What is interesting about Koufos,” said Karl, “is that he and Timofey Mosgov were considered throw-ins when Denver made the Melo (Carmelo Anthony, three-team) deal. But he got in the gym with Timo, and they kept working. Kosta turned out to be a big who is a very active offensive rebounder, very good defensive rebounder and a rim protector. He quietly keeps getting better at everything, which is a great compliment to a player.”

What is interesting about Koufos is that he and Timofey Mosgov were considered throw-ins when Denver made the Melo (Carmelo Anthony, three-team) deal. But he got in the gym with Timo, and they kept working. Kosta turned out to be a big who is a very active offensive rebounder, very good defensive rebounder and a rim protector. He quietly keeps getting better at everything, which is a great compliment to a player.

Kings coach George Karl on Kosta Koufos

While Koufos was lured to Sacramento largely because of his prior relationship with Karl, he also was intrigued by a frontcourt rotation that included Cousins and Cauley-Stein. Cousins, he says, can get 30 points and 10 rebounds on an off-night. The rookie, he says, is a quick study and willing pupil. His own role, he says, is clearly defined: Defend and rebound, convert close-in chances, run the floor.

“We have to play within ourselves,” he continued, “and it’s going to take time. But it will be great to be part of the program going into the new arena next year.”

Meantime, the challenges without the ailing Cousins continue. The Houston Rockets on Friday night. The defending champion Golden State Warriors on Saturday. The always exquisite and dangerous San Antonio Spurs on Monday. But there is this to ponder, too: Imagine the Kings with an ailing Cousins and no Koufos or Cauley-Stein on the roster? It could be worse.

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