Ball Don't Lie

DeMarcus Cousins is playing like a star, if anyone notices

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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DeMarcus Cousins (Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Now in his second NBA season, Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins has gained more attention for his disagreements with team management than for his impressive skills as a basketball player. Cousins and coach Paul Westphal never got along particularly well — we started covering their disagreements during Cousins' first month in the league — and things reached a head around New Year's Day when Cousins reportedly demanded a trade and Westphal was fired a few days later. Even though Cousins eventually won that war, the general impression around the league is that he might be more trouble than he's worth.

Yet, if his production means anything, then Cousins might be turning into one of the best young players in the NBA. Since Westphal left and Keith Smart took over, DMC has been on an absolute tear, combining athleticism and skill in a way that's made him a top prospect since his teenage years. Rob Mahoney explains in depth at The New York Times' Off the Dribble blog:

Cousins rarely does anything quietly, but his offensive dominance this season has flown squarely under the radar. He barely registers in discussions about the league's up-and-comers, despite the fact that, at just 21 years old, he ranks third in the N.B.A. this season in double-doubles. He nearly pulled off back-to-back 20-20 games in the last three days (with a 21-point, 20-rebound performance against Golden State, and a 28-point, 19-rebound outing in New Orleans), and yet Cousins made a mere blip in the collective basketball coverage and consciousness. [...]

[Greg] Monroe's case has already been made and affirmed this season, as he's quickly established himself as the Pistons' best player and a legitimate All-Star candidate. But Cousins' résumé is even more impressive, and a testament to both his incredible talent and the savvy of Kings Coach Keith Smart. Cousins didn't struggle in his games under former Kings coach Paul Westphal, but Smart is giving him the playing time he deserves, putting him position to succeed and — harsh as it sounds — actually being coached. Smart seems to have already made bigger strides with Cousins in 17 games than Westphal did in the previous 89, a fact that says plenty about the ability of both coaches.

That said, Smart's success is built on the strength of Cousins' skill and basketball instincts. He's not a miracle worker, but merely a coach finally giving Cousins the essentials that he has long needed. With that crucial foundation finally in place, Cousins has put up averages of 19 points (on 46 percent shooting) and 14.2 rebounds per 36 minutes this season. No 21-year-old has ever produced at such a prolific level in the history of the N.B.A., making Cousins' success this year unprecedented.

Cousins isn't the first post player to come into the league as a refined scorer, but what makes him unique is the way his fundamental skill benefits from his modern understanding of on-court space. Cousins isn't a "throwback" player in any sense; as odd as it sounds, Cousins is closer to being a 7-foot Manu Ginobili than an iteration of the Tim Duncan archetype, a telling demonstration of which came when Cousins burned Hornets center Chris Kaman with a Euro step en route to the rim on Monday night. There's no question that his scoring game is still predicated on height and touch, but those two attributes only come into play as facilitating elements of Cousins' creativity and unusual sense of timing.

It's a terrific profile, so read the whole thing if you have the time. What stands out isn't just that Cousins is producing, but that he's doing so along the lines of the potential everyone identified so long ago. In strict on-court terms, none of this is much of a surprise — it's the fulfillment of promise everyone identified long ago.

Still, it is a surprise in the context of Cousins' NBA career, if only because his flare-ups with Westphal seemed to signal that he didn't have the maturity necessary to succeed as a professional. That first impression was strong, and not entirely meaningless, but his recent success has proven that it was only part of the story. In the right situation, Cousins can undoubtedly produce like a star. His first year with the Kings isn't going to define everything he does — it just provided a set of expectations and assumptions for the kind of player he is.

It's those expectations that have caused Cousins' stellar season from being championed more broadly. Because while the Kings are bad, players like Kevin Love have earned plenty of attention on bad teams. The problem for Cousins is simply that no one expects him to be a consistent producer at this point in his career, because he's been branded as a hothead capable of sporadic greatness. He's a victim of his own narrative, a set of first impressions that take more than a stellar month to reverse course.

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