Can DeMarcus Cousins bring winning back to Sacramento?

There’s a new king of Kings, and Vivek hopes ‘Boogie' will be one of the best big men in the NBA

Most agree that Cousins has the skills to be one of the top big men in the NBA, a true all-star.

Most agree that Cousins has the skills to be one of the top big men in the NBA, a true all-star.

photo by steven chea

When he walked into the Sacramento Kings practice facility recently, 23-year-old center DeMarcus Cousins had just signed a four-year contract extension valued at approximately $62 million. Yet he had a hangdog look on his face of a man who just had $62 million stolen from him via identity theft. Or five grand lifted from his billfold by a quick, agile, gutsy and light-fingered pickpocket.

Surely, somewhere inside this 6-foot-11, 270-pound enigma of a hooper there had to be glee of a few bounds. Cousins was where he wanted to be.

And the Kings had made the bold move to give Cousins a boatload of cash. They’d entrusted him to lead their franchise out of the NBA’s Western Conference’s basement and into the penthouse neighborhood—and, next, the impressive digs they promise their new arena will become.

That’s a lot of faith in a young player who has yet to prove he can lead himself, much less others. Can Cousins deal with such responsibility at 23 years old?

He says he’s extremely comfortable in this new role.

“I’ve got broad shoulders,” he told SN&R. “I can handle it.”

Through three seasons, Cousins has been one of the NBA’s most volatile, unpredictable talents. What he has shown so far this year, however, is an ability to shake off the naysayers and move onward.

In Sacramento’s 91-90 preseason victory over the Golden State Warriors last week, for example, he received a forearm to the throat from Warriors center Andrew Bogut. But then, the referee whistled Bogut and Cousins with a foul.

Instead of getting angry, Cousins just laughed it off.

Is this a new DeMarcus Cousins?

'I wanted to be here'

New Kings head coach Michael Malone fancies himself a movie buff. During a recent conversation, he referenced a quote by Robert De Niro in the film A Bronx Tale.

“It’s one of my favorite movies,” Malone said. “And in the movie, De Niro says to his son, Calogero, ’The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.’ And I want to help DeMarcus make sure he doesn’t waste his talent.”

Another coach, Byron Scott—who has been around the NBA for 30 years as a player, world champion and head coach—is impressed by what he’s seen from Cousins.

“I think he can become one of the league’s best players,” said Scott, also a former Kings assistant coach. “He’s got the total package.”

Of course, Scott reminded that, sometimes, Cousins “loses his head and lets things get to him.”

“But that’s part of growth,” he added. “I think, at 23, it seems like he’s getting things together. And his talent is undeniable.”

Garry St. Jean, a former Kings head coach, Golden State Warriors general manager and current Comcast SportsNet Bay Area commentator, believes he’s seen a positive change in Cousins already.

“It’s refreshing to see how the young man is playing,” St. Jean said. “[The late] Pete Newell used to say it usually took big guys three years to find themselves in the NBA. Sure, Cousins went through stages where he has battled coaches, [referees], fans and teammates. But he seems to be playing, well, almost happy.”

Sixty-two-million dollars would put a smile on most of our faces.

It’s been reported, though, that Cousins did not want a five-year deal and, instead, the four-year contract was finally agreed upon. On the surface, that doesn’t sound right: $80 million vs. $62 million—which one would you take? (I’ll take the $80 million all day.) Cousins, however, will not be dissatisfied with life on a $62 million deal, and the ability to become a free agent just before he turns 27.

One of the factors for the Kings in making this deal was their belief that, in a worst-case scenario, they will be able to trade him.

Cousins wouldn’t get into whether he really wanted the five-year deal over the four-year deal. And, as he said, at this point, it’s moot.

“It doesn’t really matter, because I wanted to be here,” Cousins said. “I’m here because we got it done.”

These days in the NBA, players not only want the most money available (not new), but also want to combine their talents with a group of players or friends to create superteams. This wasn’t a goal for Cousins.

“A lot of people thought I didn’t want to be here,” he said, “but I wanted to be here the whole time. I just wanted things to get better. We’re on the up now. We’re getting better, we’re moving forward, and I like the way the organization is being run.”

Cousins also believes he’s matured during his three NBA seasons.

Some say DeMarcus Cousins whines too much. That he makes those incredulous expressions on his face after foul calls too often. Others, however, say it’s just a look—and nothing more.

Photo By steven chea

“Absolutely,” the bear of a man said. “I don’t know if it’s being more mature as much as it’s about seeing things before they happen. A lot of times, my first coach, [Paul Westphal], would do things to make me react, and I knew it would happen, and I’d still let him do it.

“I believe now I wouldn’t let that same situation happen.”

Cousins admits different players and people handle adversity and situations better than others, better than he has in the past.

“Some things don’t bother players like they would others,” he said. “Some of the things I let bother me then wouldn’t bother me now. … I’ve got a better understanding of this business.

“And it is a business.”

'That face'

Despite the questionable bursts of temper or uncontrollable behavior that have earned Cousins suspensions from both the Kings and the NBA itself, it’s often the face that the big man makes when he’s frustrated that creates a negative perception of him.

Kings guard Jimmer Fredette thinks of the Chicago Bears quarterback when the idea of Cousins’ facial expressions is mentioned. “It’s kind of like Jay Cutler, when he kind of has ’that face,’” Fredette said. “It’s not that he’s mad. That’s just the way he looks. It’s not a big deal.

“Maybe some people look at that and wonder what he is thinking, and then jump to conclusions.”

Many who write about pro basketball have deemed Cousins to be out of control. They have described him as a joke and a player around whom a franchise should not be constructed.

The Kings have taken the unique—critics might say insane—approach to not only give Cousins mega-loot, but also tag him as the leader and face of the franchise.

That decision was not made idly. New owner Vivek Ranadivé, Malone, general manager Pete D’Alessandro, adviser Chris Mullin and even former Kings tormentor Shaquille O’Neal put their heads together and decided Cousins’ talent, skill and character was worth it.

Ultimately, though, it was Ranadivé’s decision. And it’s likely the software mogul did not put together a fortune by making many incorrect decisions.

“I first got to know DeMarcus shortly after the [team purchase] was done,” the owner explained. “The very first thing I did after I knew we had the deal was to text DeMarcus.”

After this, Ranadivé told him what his good friend, the late Steve Jobs, liked to say. “’Let’s put a dent in the universe.’ I told DeMarcus, ’Let’s put a dent in the NBA universe.’”

Cousins sent him a text message back. “Kind of like my kids, he doesn’t say a whole lot,” Ranadivé said. “You send a five-line text, and they give you one line back.”

Cousins wrote: “’Sounds good, boss.’”

The majority owner has great faith in Cousins’ ability, as well as his character, but Ranadivé has even more belief in his own judgment.

“I think of DeMarcus as being a prototypical 21st-century player,” he said. “He’s one of the most talented big men in the business. [He’s] a big man with skills. He’s one of the smartest players, and he has an understanding of the game that truly is unique.”

And, surprisingly, he did not ask much of Cousins before committing big bucks.

“The only thing I said to him was: ’DeMarcus, I just want one thing from you. I want you to be the first guy in and the last guy out, because you’re going to be the leader of this organization,’ and he’s done that.”

Both coaches Scott and St. Jean are already seeing improvement.

“I see a smarter defender,” St. Jean said of Cousins. “He’s definitely transitioning better, in terms of getting back on defense. I like the fact that he takes charges. How many big guys do that? And he seems to be taking things in stride.

“I’ll tell you what: He’ll be at the top of the white board in opposing locker rooms.”

Scott agrees. “The young man is a beast with all types of skills,” Scott praised. “I think his major battle will be the mental adjustments he has to make. His goals should be to become an all-star and make that team better.”

Malone, who inherited the enormous task of helping Cousins reach heights he’s yet to experience, sees even more potential. The coach, a down-to-earth, somewhat no-nonsense leader, knows directing Cousins will not be easy.

But he also says he’s learned that what you have heard about Cousins isn’t always true.

“He’s led the league in technical fouls, he’s gotten into [it] with every one of his coaches and with [some of] his teammates at different points. So you hear different things,” he said. “But I really went into this with … an open heart and an open mind. And none of that happened on my watch. I can only go by my dealings with DeMarcus Cousins.

DeMarcus Cousins said, “Some of the things I let bother me [in the past] wouldn’t bother me now. I’ve got a better understanding of this business. And it is a business.”

Photo By steven chea

“[And] all the perception out there couldn’t be further from the truth,” Malone, whose father Brendan recently resigned as lead assistant coach, added. “My challenge to him was to be a leader and to work hard every day. Is he where he needs to be? No. We’re all growing. I’m trying to get better every day.”

Just like C-Webb?

Ultimately, Cousins will be judged on the team’s improvement. Unlike Chris Webber, who became viewed as the major factor in the Kings’ turnaround at the turn of the century, Cousins has not yet been joined by an overall roster makeover. Realistically, the team needed Vlade Divac and Jason Williams (then Mike Bibby), Peja Stojakovi, Vernon Maxwell, Jimmy Jackson, and Bobby Jackson and the like to become one of the league’s best.

One player, even as talented as Cousins, cannot do it alone.

However, we have yet to see the best of Cousins. At this point, even he is unaware of how good he can become on a nightly basis. And it’s consistent excellence that will prove the long-term value of his contract extension.

“He has been tremendous all through September and up until today, in terms of his leadership, his coming to work every day, his accepting coaching and his accepting criticism on film. I’ve been real pleased with his attitude, his work ethic and the teammate he’s been to his fellow Kings,” coach Malone said.

But he added: “Now, I’m not naive. It’s a long season, and things happen during the season. But I think he has a good heart.”

Malone says the first thing Cousins ever told him was, “’Coach, people say I’m uncoachable. That’s not true. I hate to lose. I’ve just been very frustrated because we’ve lost, and I haven’t really enjoyed how things have been done around here.’”

How’d Malone respond? “I said, ’OK, well, that’s going to change, but you have to be a part of that change, and things cannot always be everybody else’s fault. You have to take ownership in it, and we have to learn from it.’”

It is easy to see where Cousins needs most improvement. His shot selection is consistently questionable. He has a solid face-up jump shot, out to 17 feet, but he tends to settle for that perimeter approach instead of using his power, quickness and agility to get to the basket.

He’s not an exceptional jumper. Had he been blessed with incredible leaping ability, it wouldn’t be fair. Unless his shot selection improves, he’ll continue to have more shots blocked around the basket.

Cousins also never has displayed a legit post game close to the hoop. A go-to move with his back to the basket has yet to be established. He’s strong enough to consistently get good position in the low post, but doesn’t always work hard enough to maximize his ability close to the hoop.

At the defensive end of the court, one of Cousins major problems is it takes too long for him to get there. He’s been known not to be dedicated at busting his rear to get back, which often reflects poorly on the team’s defense.

And he’s not a prime-time shot-blocker, but he does rank highly in charges taken. The big man has quick feet and uses them well—when he wants to. The challenge for Malone is to get Cousins to want to use his God-given skills much more consistently on the defensive end.

Next king of Kings

The old-era Sacramento Kings were a mess, led by an ownership group in the Maloof family that couldn’t get out of its own way. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2005-2006 season, and even then they were bounced out in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs. Those Kings were led by Metta World Peace, who then was still Ron Artest, and Bonzi Wells and Mike Bibby.

Cousins, who now is entering his fourth professional season, was just 15 years old during that season. Chuck Hayes, John Salmons and Travis Outlaw are the only Kings who were NBA players at the time.

It’s been a long time since the Kings were a winning team, and they recognize it will take much hard work and laserlike focus just to get back into that neighborhood.

Cousins probably is known best by his teammates. They spend the most time with him and have been through battles with the mercurial big guy.

Chuck Hayes, like Cousins, attended the University of Kentucky and sees growth.

“He’s making progress every year,” said Hayes, who joined the Kings in December 2011. “Each year, he’s getting more focus. From the workouts we’ve had, he’s been a vocal leader, and that’s good. We need that from a guy of his presence.”

Hayes said outsiders don’t know Cousins.

“He’s misunderstood,” Hayes said. “The way he is with the reputation he has and the way he’s talked about in the media, that’s not the guy that we see in the locker room.”

But Hayes says Cousins is still “definitely a puppy.”

“He’s still young. He’s [23] years old. He’s enjoying the game. He’s enjoying life. He’s just put on such a big pedestal.”

One of the more interesting dynamics among the Kings is the relationship between 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas and Cousins.

“We’re kind of like the same kind of guy. … Not just on the court, but off the court,” Thomas said. “We don’t hold [anything] back. We don’t hold our tongues or anything. We’re going to say how we feel.”

That means there are times when Cousins has done things Thomas has disliked, and the short guy has to speak harshly to the big guy.

“Maybe we’re just a little-man-big-man combination that just clicked,” Thomas said. “We’re great friends. I’m somebody that he listens to, and when I have something to say to him … I can pull him to the side and say, ’DeMarcus, this is what we need,’ and he’ll do it. I expect big things out of him.”

Thomas said Cousins has to realize expectations have grown with his future paychecks. “He’s a franchise player,” Thomas said. “He’s capable of being a franchise player.

“All he’s got to do is mature and recognize every night, it’s on him.”