Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins has been criticized for various instances of questionable behavior throughout his basketball career, but few such reactions have seemed as arbitrary as that of USA Basketball head honcho Jerry Colangelo during Olympic training in 2012. Cousins was invited to participate in training camp as a member of the young-skewing Select Team and decided to compete incredibly hard. To some, it was a case of a player attempting to prove he belonged with the best players in the league, typically considered to be a noble pursuit. To others, like Colangelo, Cousins's tendency to foul said superstars made it clear that he needed to mature. However, when Cousins asked Colangelo exactly what that would involve, the septuagenarian was unable to specify.
Two summers later, Colangelo appears to have come around on Cousins. In the recently concluded FIBA World Cup of Basketball, the 24-year-old helped Team USA to the gold medal with a strong interior presence at both ends, serving as a fantastic substitute for starters Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried. Plus, he only really earned negative attention when holding himself back from throwing a punch at Lithuania's Jonas Valanciunas. He was impressive enough that Colangelo lavished him with praise. From Ailene Voisin for The Sacramento Bee (via PBT):
“You can use all the superlatives you want,” Colangelo said Tuesday afternoon, “and apply them to DeMarcus. He made the team, made a major contribution, made tremendous strides. In the locker room after our win over Serbia (earned an automatic berth to the Rio Games), DeMarcus in particular was emotional. 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.’ ”
It's a nice sentiment from Colangelo, and the fact that Cousins seems to appreciate their new relationship indicates that the two have reached something of an understanding. Colangelo's previous reasoning for questioning Cousins looked a little questionable, even if the player really does have maturation issues, so the mere fact that he sees a change shows a willingness to change his mind about a player. It's good to see, especially given the way people usually condescend to Cousins.
On the other hand, Colangelo appears to view Cousins's apparent change in temperament from a perspective that promotes his work with Team USA beyond what Cousins did himself. In Colangelo's view, Cousins only really learned how to contribute this way this summer, as if he entered camp as a malcontent without a sense of how to perform consistently. But the fact is that Cousins was terrific with the Kings last season, averaging 22.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game with a tremendous 26. 1 PER (fifth-best in the NBA). The Kings weren't very good, but their 28-54 record can't be blamed on Cousins, because the organization doesn't appear to have a coherent long-term plan. Based on Cousins's NBA production, his play in the World Cup looks like a continuation, not a new start. He really is this good.
Yet Colangelo sees his FIBA performance as a fresh start. As Adrian Wojnarowski wrote on Monday, USA Basketball looks increasingly like a promotional tour for the people who run and coach the national team. Colangelo's comments here look like more of the same, even if they take the form of rightful praise for an excellent player. Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski have succeeded in rehabilitating Team USA's image following many high-profile failures throughout the '00s, but the players who have won gold have done so largely due to their development in the NBA. It's good that Colangelo has acknowledged that Cousins is now a legitimate star, but he's well behind the rest of us in making that claim. Perhaps it's time that the USA Basketball brain trust gives these terrific players credit for lending their talents to the task of building the national team's brand instead of acting as if this experience is the best available means of learning how to be a winner. Colangelo needs Cousins at least as much as Cousins needs Colangelo.
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