Cuz Coming Into His Own
Cousins’ newfound focus paying off for Kings.
by Patrick Crawley / @BasketballFiend
The cameras are off. The noise in the locker room is a low hum. Members of the media, divided into small groups, are talking amongst themselves, recorders powered off.
Suddenly, shouting and boisterous laughter break out in a corner of the room. Kings rookie DeMarcus Cousins is razzing teammate Omri Casspi about a slowly developing bald spot on the top of Casspi’s head.
“Pretty soon you’re going to be like Manu [Ginobili],” he yells, pointing good naturedly to Casspi’s thinning hair.
Casspi laughs and tosses a comeback, something about playing as well as Manu.
“No,” Cousins says with a mischievous smile. “Not play like Ginobili! You’re losing your hair like him!”
Sensing a “moment,” the media converges. The cameras flash on. And as they do, Cousins transforms.
His broad smile turns into lines of concentration. He’s focused now, pensive. The time for joking is done. He’s ready to get down to business.
The same can be said for Cousins’ recent approach on the court.
Tough lessons borne out of adversity and losing have focused him. Being demoted to the bench (for making a choking gesture in a loss to the Golden State Warriors), then promoted back to starter seems to have changed his outlook on the game.
After 20 some odd games of reckless, immature basketball, the rookie big man has learned to harness his aggression, and his individual development is paying big dividends for the Kings.
Over the course of the last five games — three of which Sacramento has won — Cousins is averaging 21.8 points, 9 rebounds and 2.8 assists. More importantly, he’s playing with poise; holding his tongue after bad calls (not every time, but at least more often), heeding the advice of coaches and waiting patiently for openings on offense rather than rushing a bad shot.
“I think my focus is a lot better,” Cousins said when asked about his recent success. “I’m not getting stressed about referees or bad plays on my part. I used to make a bad pass or a bad play and keep it in my head. Now I let it go and move on to the next play or the next shot and I believe that’s why I’m a lot better now.”
His maturity is a change recognized by his coaches and teammates as well.
“He’s coming on real quickly in that area,” coach Paul Westphal said. “He really is trying to put the explosions down quicker and he’s doing a great job of it.”
“He’s become a leader out there,” said guard Francisco Garcia. “He’s just playing basketball and not worrying about the fouls.”
Letting go of frustration has allowed Cousins to not only feel more relaxed on the court, but also to better maximize his talent.
In a recent win over Phoenix, Cousins picked apart the Suns’ interior defense with a ruthless array of post moves and mid-range jumpers. Rather than bulling his way into double teams, as he was liable to do earlier in the season, he used more head fakes and hesitation moves, allowing him to take more controlled shots and hit open teammates (if the situation called for it).
The approach worked. Cousins hit 11-17 shots from the field and 6-6 free throws on his way to a season-high 28 points, most of which came against respected defenders Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat.
“Patience is something the coaches have really been talking to me about and it’s made me a lot better offensively,” Cousins said.
It’s also a quality that has led Cousins to a better understanding of where his teammates will be on offense, allowing him to show off his prodigious passing skills.
His point total in the Phoenix game wasn’t Cousins’ only season high. He also racked up six assists — his highest total of the season so far — in a performance reminiscent of the days of Chris Webber and Vlade Divac.
“I believe I’m getting more in sync with my teammates,” Cousins said of his passing ability. “They know to expect something crazy around me because I’ll throw [a pass] any time.”
Cousins’ smooth footwork in the post and his ability to find the open man out of double teams were primary reasons the Kings drafted him fifth overall in the 2010 Draft, which is why his recent offensive breakout comes as a surprise to few who know his game.
His progression on defense, however, has been something of an unexpected development.
Early in the season, much was made about Cousins’ inability to stay out of foul trouble — and rightfully so; he was averaging 4.2 fouls per game in November in just under 23 minutes of play. He was caught in the air more times than a Chinese acrobat.
Recently, though, Cousins has begun to adapt.
“I’m playing a lot lower,” he said in an interview after the Hawks game. “In the beginning, I was standing up and reacting late. Now, I’m a lot lower and I’m bending my knees.”
He’s also moving his feet a lot better, as those who saw him defend Hawks forward Josh Smith on Tuesday can attest to. Cousins challenged the athletic Smith at every turn, holding him to 14 points and frustrating him several times in the low block.
Cousins showed similarly impressive footwork in Thursday’s win over the Nuggets, closing off the baseline to another Smith, JR, as a help defender covering for Beno Udrih, who was beat off the dribble. Smith was forced to pass to a teammate on the perimeter rather than attempt the easy layup he likely envisioned.
It was a small but impressive victory for the Kings’ defense.
“He’s learning all the time,” Westphal said of Cousins. “He’s a player who has quick feet, quick hands and a quick mind. He still has a lot to learn about the League and what’s a foul and what isn’t, but he’s 10 times better than a month ago at understanding those things.”
Compliments like that haven’t come easy this season. Westphal and Cousins have had a contentious relationship as coach and player that is well documented. But the two seem to have come to a mutual understanding — “They definitely are getting better in the way they’re treating each other,” Garcia said after the Nuggets game — and the Kings are beginning to show signs of improvement.
“If we can have DeMarcus continue his rapid improvement and be consistent at that level, and if we can have Tyreke [Evans] be healthy, we feel great about our team going forward,” Westphal said. “We do think that we have a much better team than we had last year.”
With Evans’ health improving by the day and Cousins coming into his own in a way few expected this early in the season, that statement seems a lot less laughable than it would have been two weeks ago.
Judging by their recent performances, the Kings are on a better path than they were earlier in the season, which means there may be a day in the not-so-distant future when they can focus less on losing and more on enjoying trivial locker room fodder — like Omri Casspi’s male pattern baldness.