Give DeMarcus Cousins a little time, and he’s going to be known as one of the NBA’s most dominant big men.
by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad
DeMarcus Cousins is tired—tired physically, tired of the losing, tired of constantly being overlooked as one of the League’s most dominant inside forces for reasons outside his 30+ minutes on the floor every night. He’s worn out from the mental aggravation that comes from the relentless drone from media and fans about his demeanor, fatigued from carrying his team, while at the same time carrying the weight of his unfortunate rep as an immature hothead in serious need of an attitude adjustment—one he’s dealt with since the ’10 Draft.
“Especially with all the negativity always coming my way,” Cousins explains. “It’s always hard to deal with the problem or the issue and go out there. Playing ball and trying to zone out and ignore all the other stuff is hard.”
You wouldn’t know it, since the 6-11 bruiser, lightly listed at 270 pounds, put up numbers that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that from a basketball standpoint, he’s matured quickly.
When he answers his cell phone it’s nearly 1:30 p.m. in Sacramento, the day after a loss in Oklahoma City. In that game, Cousins scored 32 points to pace the Kings, who faded late against one of the West’s best. Tomorrow night, he’ll close out his sophomore campaign with 23 points and 19 rebounds in a win over the short-handed, Playoff-clinched Lakers. Big lines like these became a familiar footnote this year for the Kings, who limped to a 22-44 record amidst talk of the franchise relocating.
Known to fans as Boogie, a moniker bestowed upon him at Kentucky by Wildcats assistant and former NBA point guard Rod Strickland, Cousins averaged 18.1 points, 11 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in his second NBA season. He finished top-10 in free-throw attempts, top-5 in rebounding and No. 1 in the League in total offensive rebounds, at more than 4 per game. He improved his percentages from the field (45 percent) and the free-throw line (70 percent). By year’s end, Cousins had 4 more rebounds, 7 more blocked shots, 8 more steals and 17 more points than he had total his rookie season—despite appearing in 17 fewer games due to the lockout.
“He knows how to use his body, he’s athletic, he’s long and his killer instinct sets him apart,” says Knicks forward Josh Harrelson, a teammate of Cousins’ in college. “He can dribble for a big guy, he can shoot the ball, he can post you up. He’s got great footwork for being that big, so he’s definitely a matchup problem for most people.”
To top it all off, Cousins did work at the defensive end, too, leading the League in charges taken. All part of DMC’s plan to become a more well-rounded player by gaining any edge he can. “Even if I’m not putting up big numbers or stats, I know I can dominate some other type of way—maybe just by my presence alone or making my teammates better. I know I can always dominate a game in some type of way.”
DeMarcus’ domination down low allowed the drastically undersized Kings to play an unconventional three-guard lineup for much of the regular season. His numbers are even more impressive when you consider he shouldered an extra forward’s worth of the rebounding load, while Sacramento rolled the dice with its trio of young guards—Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton and Isaiah Thomas.
And yet, it was a breakout second season that almost never was. Over the truncated ’11-12 NBA season, perhaps no player endured a roller coaster ride quite like DMC, for whom the basketball media writes a new narrative with every peak and valley. Not even a simple game recap can go by without the Alabama native’s name being preceded by phrases like “talented but volatile.”
Four games into the ’11-12 season, Cousins was sent home by head coach Paul Westphal, who released a statement saying DeMarcus had demanded to be traded, and he had no choice but to dismiss his starting center. Cousins—who denies ever asking to be traded, saying only that “everybody doesn’t know what happens behind closed doors in this League”—missed Sacramento’s New Year’s Day win over New Orleans.
“Those days were rough, especially coming from the Kings,” says Cousins, who remembers isolating himself at home, turning off his phone and sitting in the dark to avoid SportsCenter. “A story got put out like I didn’t want to be there, and that was absolutely not true. I definitely want to be in Sacramento, this is the place where I want to be.”
Less than a week later, though, after he re-joined the Kings on the team’s next road trip, the contentious relationship between player and coach came to a head, as Kings management elected to fire Westphal after a 2-5 start—and stand behind Cousins.
Assistant Keith Smart inked a deal to become the team’s new head man, and almost immediately, made it clear that developing a positive relationship with Cousins was a priority. Smart got to know Cousins, texting him after games and showing up at the 21-year-old’s home to talk, watch television or share a pot of gumbo from Sandra Dee’s.
“He’ll just come over and have dinner. We’re both guys from the South, and we love seafood,” says Cousins of his coach, who earned his trust early on. “[Coach Smart] understands me, I understand him and we’re on the same page. He wants me to be great. He knows my talents, he wants me to show them. He believes in me.”
With Smart at the helm, Cousins not only thrived as a player, but had more fun. The normally stoic, stone-faced Cousins even donned Smart’s sport coat during the final minute of a late-March win over Memphis, clapping his hands and directing traffic as “Coach Boogie.”
For as far as he’s come personally, the chorus of critics remains strong, taking aim at his lack of consistency. Because when he’s on, there aren’t five bigs in the League who can stop him. So what happens on big nights like April 3, when he poured in a career-high 41 points against Phoenix’s overmatched frontline? “I usually come out focused, probably more focused than other nights, which is a problem. I’m still trying to learn how to be consistent on that aspect of the game. Just to focus, and have a goal in mind—go out and dominate.”
More disapproval remains for his perceived lack of composure when discussing said on-court frustrations. One game after his career-best against the Suns, the NBA fined DMC $25K for criticizing the officiating in a loss to the Clippers. His post-game comments included barbs aimed at Blake Griffin, whom he described as “babied” and “an actor.”
Not surprisingly, Cousins issued no apology, offered no retraction. In fact, rather than wanting to explain away the remarks, he stands by them. “I still feel that way,” Cousins says. “[Griffin] is a good player, but I feel like some of the things he gets aren’t really earned and are just given to him. There are other players like myself, who don’t get any type of credit. It’s just, ‘Oh, he’s an immature player with talent.’”
Love him or hate him—and agree or not with his assessment of BG—it’s hard not to respect Cousins’ candor in an era when athletes are expected to favor political correctness over honesty. Boogie knows his off-the-cuff style is abrasive to some, but that won’t stop him from delivering the truth as he sees it. “I’m always somebody that’s going to speak my mind. That usually gets me in trouble, but at the end of the day, I’m going to speak my mind.”
With two years of experience under his belt, Cousins has taken baby steps toward turning his fiery personality into trouble for his opponents on the court, rather than for himself off it.
As Harrelson puts it, “He’s still young, he’s not mature yet and that shows at times. He’s got a long way to go in that aspect of the game. But every game he’s out there, you see him maturing more and more.”
A verbal spat with Kings strength and conditioning coach Daniel Shapiro in October of his rookie year reportedly cost Cousins a $5,000 fine. Shapiro acknowledges there was an incident but insists their “relationship has improved tenfold from last year.” And now, the two work together in the weight room to harness his energy for the better. “His emotion is his strength,” Shapiro says. “We do not want to lose that passion.”
Because it’s that burning desire that makes Boogie both a menace on the offensive boards and a target for technical fouls. Properly channeling his mean streak is Cousins’ next big challenge—which makes his admiration for Spurs veteran Tim Duncan appropriate. “Shit, you’re good,” DMC reportedly told Duncan while matching up with The Big Fundamental in March.
“Just his calmness, he’s never in a rush, he knows he’s in control. That’s something I would like to take from his game,” says Cousins, who, like Duncan in his prime, prefers to catch the ball at the elbow, face up and attack defenders. But Duncan is not his favorite.
No, the player who DeMarcus says he models his game after is an altogether more incongruous choice: Carmelo Anthony. He marvels at Melo’s “quickness for his size” and all-around game, and sees similarities in his, despite quite a difference in frame.
Such is the kind of refreshingly curious interlude that makes DeMarcus Cousins one of the most unique, genuine star players on the planet. On the surface, his contrast of otherworldly talent and bruising body but often-brash attitude and strange post-game musings just doesn’t compute. It’s easiest to label him “misunderstood,” and leave it at that. After all, a tattoo on his calf says just that.
But when it comes to pure basketball, there’s no misunderstanding Boogie’s potential. At All-Star Weekend, Charles Barkley called Cousins a “scary talent” before adding that with proper motivation, he could be “the best big man in the NBA.” DeMarcus says it won’t be long before Chuck’s prediction rings true.
“As of right now, I’d rank myself top three. And that’s behind Dwight and Andrew Bynum. But I feel like I’ll be passing them soon, as well.”
And Big Cous has a simple set of goals for his summer. “Come back even more dominant, in better shape, in a better mind frame, more of a leader.” As for a Playoff run next year? “It’s going to start with me. I’m going to have to step up even more. And my teammates are going to have to follow.”