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Andy Furillo: DeMarcus Cousins and Kings can go far – without the scowl

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Sacramento Kings assistant Nancy Lieberman sayscoach George Karl is a genius and feels players are ready for a new level.
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Sacramento Kings assistant Nancy Lieberman sayscoach George Karl is a genius and feels players are ready for a new level.

In just the few minutes the media were allowed to watch the Kings practice on Saturday, you could see that DeMarcus Cousins remains an emotional work in progress.

A teammate’s mistake on the defensive end generated a world-class rolling of the eyes. His body language told a story of despair.

When the Kings completed the session, the coach kept Cousins and one of his new teammates, Rajon Rondo, late for a chat.

“Our personality is a little emotional,” George Karl said when asked about the post-practice discussion. “I don’t want to totally remove emotion. I think there’s good emotion and there’s actually time that emotion can be good. But we’ve got to pick and choose our opportunities there. We’ve got to be better professionals about not cheating the game by being emotional in the wrong moment. And I think we’ve all got to help each other through it a little bit.”

Everybody knows Cousins is one of the best players in the world. He has the big shoulders, the strong and soft hands, the brains and the brawn. Last year, he posted his best numbers as a pro. Recognition came from the great minds of the game. They put him on the NBA All-Star team. They made him a FIBA World Cup champion.

If Cousins is the face of the Kings – and as their best and most visible player, he is certainly that – then the look they present too often is a scowl.

His true test of greatness, however, will come in his confrontation with the negative emotion we’ve all seen play out in the public square.

If Cousins is the face of the Kings – and as their best and most visible player, he is certainly that – then the look they present too often is a scowl.

Sometimes, an angry countenance is in order, especially when your team goes 29-53. But it can’t be the enduring image. It may have worked for Sonny Liston, who perfected his penitentiary face on the prison yard and made the demeanor work to his benefit. But in the one-man sport of prize fighting, Sonny didn’t have to worry about teammates, and he never much cared what the public thought.

Cousins, an upstanding citizen of Sacramento and the world, doesn’t have such a luxury. He has brother players and a public image to consider. He’d be advised to recall that being a pretty face worked well for Liston’s conqueror, Muhammad Ali, who positively channeled his emotions and became one of the most beloved figures in human history.

Cousins isn’t quite as good looking as Ali, and his constituency these days is mostly confined to the land between Mt. Diablo and the Yuba Gap, rather than across the seven seas.

We are a modest people in these parts. We don’t demand much. But we do expect the best player on our professional basketball team to take responsibility for winning. Now that we are publicly invested in his future workplace, we do want him to understand that it is his job to set the emotional tone. We would be pleased if he became more of a leader, if he made this team his own, in a friendly and ferocious sort of way, and took it to the playoffs.

In the offseason, Cousins got a ton of help toward achieving the demands we have placed on him. New management shuffled out a lot of nice men with blank stares and brought in some intriguing new pieces for Karl’s chess board. Plus, they got us a firecracker in Rondo, who used to be so good with the Boston Celtics and, at age 29, is still many years away from Social Security. Here’s hoping that Rajon starts hitting his free throws again.

The challenge for Cousins, who was not made available for comment at Saturday’s practice, is to attain emotional maturity. It’s a challenge for all of us, and we don’t even have to do our jobs with television cameras stuck in our faces. It’s a must for him.

So the coach raised the issue after practice the other day.

“I kind of like coaching emotional guys,” Karl said. “I like guys that care, that show they care and they’re angry that they’re not playing well, or that something’s going wrong out there. But it’s got to be done in a never-hurts-the-team way.”

Emotion helps when it connects teammates, according to Karl. It’s bad when it tears players apart, and it’s up to the leaders to know when to turn it up or dial it down.

Karl believes Cousins is learning to use and control his emotion. The coach said he sees it in most of Cousins’ actions, in his approach to practice, his attitude, his desire to be a good teammate.

He’s a young player who has struggled through losing seasons. And I think he’s excited because he knows we can be a winning team.

George Karl, Kings coach, on DeMarcus Cousins

“He’s a young player who has struggled through losing seasons,” Karl said. “And I think he’s excited because he knows we can be a winning team, and I think he’s excited about trying to move in a direction on being a leader.”

Cousins has more players around him now who lead by example, guys like Rondo and Caron Butler and Marco Belinelli and Kosta Koufos, and even rookie Willie Cauley-Stein, who listens when the coach talks, who runs out to help a teammate up who gets knocked down.

Greatness is right around the corner for DeMarcus.

Then again, so was prosperity for America during the early days of the Great Depression, according to the analysis of Herbert Hoover. We all know how the 31st president airballed that one, yet still got his name on a dam and a tower at Stanford.

As for DeMarcus, there is no reason for him to miss his mark. If he plays his high-caliber game and leads the Kings into the playoffs every year – if he gets his emotion right – he just might get his face on a plaque in Springfield.

Without the scowl.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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