DeMarcus Cousins is already on the verge of being elite, and he's still only 23 years old.
When NBA fans talk about the best centers in basketball, a handful of names are almost universally discussed: Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan (if you consider him a center), Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Brook Lopez. Cousins doesn't quite deserve to be in that category yet, but he's the leading contender of the many bigs striving to join the exclusive group.
That fact isn't lost on new Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Malone, who had the following to say about Cousins in an interview with The Sacramento Bee's Ailene Voisin after he was asked about Boogie's status as a franchise-level talent:
I've talked about DeMarcus a lot, but he's so talented. He's a big who can play away from the basket. But I'm going to ask him to play inside as well this year, be a guy we can run our offense through at times, because he can be such a good passer. The challenge for him is to cut down on those three turnovers a game. The luxury we had last year at Golden State, we had two bigs (David Lee and Andrew Bogut) who were not only good passers but willing passers. My hope is we get to that at some point.
Cutting back on turnovers is part of what Cousins must do to become a truly elite center, but it's by no means the only area that needs improvement.
As a caveat, I won't be focusing on his poor on-court attitude.
Cousins has been suspended and dismissed from the team multiple times, racked up technical fouls and generally been a tough player to handle, but the fix for that is rather simple: Screw his head on straight. It doesn't require any type of breakdown.
So while that's an absolutely crucial part of his development, let's stick to the actual basketball here.
Improvements in the Post
If Cousins wants to become a truly special offensive big man in the NBA, he'll have to focus his efforts on the blocks. His back-to-the-basket game is quite advanced for a 23-year-old center with only three years of professional experience under his belt, but it's not good enough yet.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Cousins scored 0.81 points per possession in post-up situations, good for 90th in the NBA. While those are undeniably solid numbers, there are still two main areas in which he could improve.
First, Cousins simply has to spend more time working in those situations.
Especially if he's going to continue developing at a high rate, he's not torturing defenses in the post enough. During the 2012-13 campaign, Cousins used post-up plays just 24.9 percent of the time. That number is far too low, especially when contrasted against the percentages of some of the other great post players in the league.
But it's not just that Cousins runs post-up plays at a lower rate than the big men he's trying to match. It's that his skill set indicates he should be utilizing that aspect of his game even more as well.
Last season, the Kentucky product also used 11.2 percent of his possessions in spot-up situations. He scored only 0.71 points per possession, "good" enough for him to rank No. 329 in the Association.
Think he should cut back in that area a bit, maybe in favor of posting up? The same can be said about isolation plays and off-ball cuts to the basket.
Unfortunately, that's only one area of the post game that causes Cousins problems.
He also has to start holding onto the ball with greater frequency. A turnover percentage of 15.9 is too high for a player trying to thrive in the post. And in order to cut back on the cough-ups, Boogie has to do a better job establishing deeper post position and not trying to do too much.
Take this play against the Oklahoma City Thunder as an example.
After forcing a switch with a hard screen, Cousins is being guarded by Kevin Durant. It would be the perfect opportunity for him to establish deep post position, but instead he settles.
It's a little bit unacceptable that the center wasn't able to assert himself any further toward the basket than the elbow. His passiveness establishing himself in the post is detrimental, and this by no means was the only time that it surfaced.
Last I checked, Cousins is a little bit stronger than Durant.
When Cousins gets the ball this far from the basket, he has to do much more work. He's not a particularly dangerous shooter, which means that he needs to work the ball in closer, offering more opportunities for turnovers, either created by a poor pass, carelessness with his handles or an extra defender coming in to swipe the ball away.
But that's not the only negative displayed in this single play.
When Cousins gets the ball and has his back to the basket, he loses his intelligence.
Normally a fairly smart player, he focuses on one end result and eschews all other options. If he decides he's going to pass, he's going to pass. That means that the lanes are easier to jump, and he resultantly starts fast breaks for the wrong team with alarming frequency.
But on the flip side, he can also go into the "Cousins must score" mode, as he does in this play. The proper decision would be kicking the ball out to John Salmons for an uncontested three-pointer at the end of the shot clock, but Cousins instead drives through a double-team and loses the ball before he can even attempt a shot.
Moving forward, these are the two keys for Cousins' improvement in the post. He must cut back on the turnovers (both by establishing deeper position and showing less rigidity in his decision-making), and he needs to simply use this type of play more often.
Hit Spot-Up Jumpers
Cousins is a remarkably skilled big man, especially given his passing chops, but he still can't hit those pesky mid-range jumpers with anything even resembling consistency. And that has to change so that he can keep defenses honest instead of allowing them to sag back and close down the passing lanes.
According to Synergy, spot-up jumpers were by far the weakest part of his game.
The former Wildcat scored just 0.71 points per possession in spot-up situations during his third professional season. As mentioned earlier, that means 328 qualified players were more effective, though that's not hard when you shoot only 47-of-130 on the season.
The success that he did have came when he received the ball and didn't make any pretense of shooting a jumper. Instead, he put the rock on the floor and drove past his man for either a dunk or a layup. It was the jumpers that were problematic.
That's exactly the type of play that we should expect to see Boogie complete even more, but he would only be helping himself out if he developed a consistent jumper.
Not only would he be able to shoot better from the outside, but defenders would also have to close out even harder, thereby opening up more drives to the basket.
During the 2012-13 campaign, Cousins shot 32.4 percent from 10 to 16 feet, according to Basketball-Reference. He was slightly better from 16 to 23 feet, knocking down 33.2 percent of his attempts, but the trend stopped there, as he made only four of his 22 three-pointers on the year.
Those percentages simply have to go up.
Way up, in fact.
Stay on his Toes Defensively
Cousins has established a bit of an offensive reputation, but his defense really isn't that shabby. At least in certain situations.
When the big man is allowed to body up, he's an effective point-stopper. He thrived guarding both roll men and post-up players last year, according to Synergy.
However, he can often struggle against more mobile players, showing a frustrating tendency to play flat-footed defense while refusing to use his own quickness. He allowed a point per possession to spot-up shooters, ranking him 216th in the league, and he was nearly as bad in isolation.
Those two settings alone were enough to trump his effective defensive play in the post, and they made him a decidedly below-average stopper.
This play against the Philadelphia 76ers should speak volumes.
Notice how Cousins is standing straight up during the middle of the play? That's not effective guarding position, and it makes it harder for him to recover and find his man on the perimeter.
Cousins is still standing upright as Lavoy Allen leaks out further and further away from him.
Without the ability to plant and drive, something necessary for maximum acceleration, Cousins can only watch as Allen drains an easy two-pointer.
This type of effort simply isn't acceptable.
Between his physicality and quickness, Cousins should be an impactful defender. He is right now, just for the wrong team. All it takes is a little more discipline and the willingness to exert energy on the less glamorous end of the court.
When will Cousins be elite?
Without defense, Cousins won't be truly elite.
It's a category he's fully capable of reaching as soon as the upcoming 2013-14 campaign. All of these fixes are relatively simple ones, although the development of a consistent jumper could take a bit more time.
To be elite, a center must be able to dominate on one end and remain at least competent on the other. Just a little more effort, a tiny dash more thinking and a pinch of additional post plays, and you have the recipe for Cousins' success.
Don't be at all surprised when "elite" and "Cousins" are thrown about in the same sentences quite often at the end of the 2013-14 season.