#SLAMTop50: DeMarcus Cousins, no. 20

The definitive ranking of the NBA's best players for 2014-15.
by October 07, 2014
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“People are making a big-time mistake on this kid.”

Those were the words of Kentucky’s Coach Cal, just before the 2010 NBA Draft. The master recruiter of talent, frequent manipulator of the media and one of DeMarcus Cousins’ most outspoken supporters through all of the ups and downs, he’s long known all about Big Cuz’s raw talent. In a Draft that also included his explosive point guard John Wall, Calipari was certain his two one-and-done stars were the best players in the crop.

At the time of the Draft, teams at the very top of the board all shied away from nabbing Cousins. Players far less talented, but each without any distinct character issues, heard their name called before him: Evan Turner. Derrick Favors. Wesley Johnson. Cal tried to warn any GM that’d listen—a big-time mistake.

Four years later, Cousins is now entering the first year of a max contract in Sacramento and inching closer to his first All-Star nod, with his sights set on finally putting it all together this upcoming NBA season. The road ’til now hasn’t always been easy—with fired coaches, inept owners and countless fines and suspensions along the way—but Cousins is easing into his role as face of the franchise and a leader on the team. For the first time in his career, he seems to have some structure and support around him to depend on.

With constant coaching, encouragement and guidance from head coach Michael Malone, along with the mentorship of respected fellow big man Reggie Evans, Cousins is looking to shift the narrative that’s followed him all throughout his career, starting with his attitude.

“In order for me to be a better leader, I can’t be getting ejected, getting these technicals,” Cousins said at Kings media day. “Without me on the floor, it’s hard for this team to win games. [Reggie Evans] challenged me and told me no more than five this year, so I’m accepting the challenge.”

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Myboi @boogiecousins goal for this year. 5 Technical this season. I feel like he can do it.

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Evans even posted an actual sign of the lofty goal in Cousins’ locker to drive the point home, grammar be damned, reading “5 Technical.” After leading the League in the dubious category each of the last two seasons, with 16 last year and 17 in the 2012 campaign, it sounds like an awfully unrealistic number. Boogie has never gotten less than 12 techs.

As often happens with media days, guys will throw out half-hearted talking points knowing that’s simply what the media wants to hear. Of course every player wants to do all that’s asked of them, make the Playoffs and concentrate on defense. When Nick Young is saying he plans on winning MVP, and maybe even Defensive Player of the Year, you can pretty much not blankly trust everything said at a team’s media day.

As for dwindling his barrage of techs, who’s to say that DeMarcus will actually be changing his approach, demeanor and reactionary death glares toward the nearest referee in overnight fashion? For now, it’s all talk, with an arbitrary goal set by a mentor in Evans that Cousins loves.

“That’s the guy I go to when I’m ready to vent,” he admits. “Whenever I’m having a problem, I go to Reggie. I’m a vet, but he’s my vet.” Since Evans was traded to Sacramento at last year’s deadline, those around the team have all noticed a more focused and sharp Big Cuz, thanks in part to his vet constantly keeping him on track.

To find out for myself just how much a new Boogie is on the horizon, I made the straight shot drive from Portland up to Vancouver this past weekend, to take in the Kings pre-season opener against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. Literally from the second the game tipped off, Cousins was in standard form, frequently complaining about calls, looking around in bewilderment when things didn’t go his way, and throwing in an overly sarcastic laugh and smile every so often to switch things up and not be overtly negative the entire time.

In a game that featured a brutal battle in the paint between Cousins, Reggie Evans, Ryan Hollins and the Raptors’ equally bruising frontline of Jonas Valanciunas, Greg Stiemsma and Tyler Hansbrough, things got as physical and chippy as it gets right from the jump. Stiemsma fouled out in just 17 minutes, after absorbing endless elbows from Cousins, who himself picked up five fouls in 21 minutes. In customary Cousins fashion, he let everyone in sight know how he felt each and every time.

But after picking up his fifth foul with 1:07 left in the third quarter, DMC showed a restraint and a calmness we’ve rarely ever seen. As he walked toward the decisively stubborn nine-year ref Mark Ayotte moments after the whistle, Reggie Evans ran over and literally arm barred Cousins away form Ayotte’s direction.

Calm down, Reg, he motioned—as Cousins simply walked along to the scorer’s table to dap up Carl Landry as he checked in to replace him. DeMarcus then calmly headed past Ayotte to the bench in silence, and a night’s work was in the books.

As everything unfolded, the entire crowd figured there was a 100 percent chance a T was moments away. The scene was vintage DeMarcus. Ayotte even stood stationary on the wing, and noticeably was prepared for a confrontation that never came.

Who knows if “5 Technical” is actually possible over an expectedly up-and-down 82-game season, but for a physical and intense exhibition, Cousins showed great poise at the moment he normally loses it for good. The only other time I can distinctly point out Cousins holding back from an inevitable tech and/or dustup was just weeks ago, when he held back a punch against Valanciunas at the FIBA World Cup.

Perhaps he’s turning the corner. It’s a start.

Being around fellow team leaders, a no-nonsense coaching staff and some of the world’s best players all summer long for that aforementioned World Cup has had a noted impact on Cousins as he enters the year. In just two summers, he went from specifically being called out by USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo for his immaturity and antics in practices to earning “an A+” from Coach K for his engaged energy and presence inside. While he often didn’t play outside of spurts here and there at time during this year’s FIBA run, he was called upon during the team’s Gold Medal game against Serbia, and came up with huge rebounds, stops and poised play under pressure.

“I feel like I added a lot to my game, especially defensively,” said Cousins. “I have the confidence to know I really can do it on the defensive end as well as the offensive end. I learned a lot from [the FIBA World Cup], it was an incredible experience. I want to share some of the knowledge I got with some of my teammates.”

While the attitude knocks have been a constant criticism of his, his detractors have also enjoyed pointing out his conditioning through the years. It’s not uncommon to see him casually trotting back across halfcourt to join a play, well behind the rest of his teammates. Cousins has gotten noticeably more toned and slim than when he entered the League in 2010, but there’s still room for improvement. While the leadership lessons and his ability to execute a precise role during the World Cup may have been the key takeaways, there’s no discounting the potential impact that a summer of constant practices and games will have for Cousins and his conditioning as he enters the month of October in his best shape yet.

“I’m a little more banged up, a little more tired, but the advantage I have is more of a game-ready shape than I usually am coming into a training camp,” he admitted.

As he’s gotten settled into Sacramento for training camp and the onslaught of games ahead, Cousins has also been constantly picking the brains of Evans and new teammates Darren Collison and Ryan Hollins. The four recently went to lunch together in Sacramento, with Cousins peppering each of the Playoff-experienced vets with questions about traits and characteristics of the more successful teams they were on. How do certain stars and leaders approach a game, or even an off day? What is the culture and atmosphere like for a team with stellar chemistry? He’s only 24 years old, but DeMarcus is already looking to expand his understanding of the game, dynamics of the team, and progress toward a more serious day-to-day approach.

Whether or not he ever keeps to just five techs remains to be seen, but the numbers he’s been having entirely no issue with have to this point made him one of the League’s most dominant bigs. 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3 assists per in 71 outings last season puts Cousins in rare air, and he was right back to his dominant ways at the opener in Vancouver, at one point even knocking a screw out of the basket after a thunderous dunk.

With the season now in full swing, and a Kings pre-season roster featuring 10 new teammates, Cousins is looking toward truly stepping into a leadership role that his new max contract affords him. Through the missteps he’s had to correct over the past four years, the knowledge he’s quickly soaking up from Evans, and by channeling the momentum from his irreplaceable summer with the US National Team, Cousins is on track for his best pro season yet, and an undisputed place among the very top of the League.

“In the locker room after our win over Serbia, DeMarcus in particular was emotional,” recalls USAB’s Colangelo. “He hugged me and thanked me for putting him on the team, and I told him, The past is the past. This is the beginning of your career. Take everything you learned back to Sacramento. You can build on this and have a tremendous career.”

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#SLAMTop50 Players 2014
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Chandler Parsons Mavs SF 6
49 Deron Williams Nets PG 15
48 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 9
47 Eric Bledsoe Suns PG 14
46 Rudy Gay Kings SF 5
45 Joe Johnson Nets SG 8
44 Kenneth Faried Nuggets PF 11
43 DeAndre Jordan Clippers C 9
42 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 13
41 Pau Gasol Bulls PF 10
40 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 12
39 Paul Millsap Hawks PF 9
38 Lance Stephenson Hornets SG 7
37 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 8
36 Al Horford Hawks C 8
35 Bradley Beal Wizards SG 6
34 Kyle Lowry Raptors PG 11
33 Andre Drummond Pistons C 7
32 Dwyane Wade Heat SG 5
31 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 7
30 DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG 4
29 Klay Thompson Warriors SG 3
28 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 6
27 Goran Dragic Suns PG 10
26 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 9
25 Al Jefferson Hornets C 6
24 Chris Bosh Heat C 5
23 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 4
22 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 4
21 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 5
20 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 3

 
Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’14-15—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.