Even without the tutelage of Shaq, Cousins has already been emerging as one of the premier centers in basketball. And now the Sacramento Kings are fully committing to him by allowing a legend to serve as his mentor.
I'll let new owner Vivek Ranadive take it away from here, courtesy of USA Today's Sam Amick:
I don't want to say anything premature, but I've been constant in my support for DeMarcus. I reached out to him when we first closed the deal. He was the first person I reached out to. They're out there practicing on their own every day, and he's out there leading those practices. He's out there with the team practicing every single day by themselves. They all came to Sacramento early. I don't know if that's ever happened. So 'Dr. O'Neal' and I are going to have dinner with him on Monday night, and Dr. O'Neal is going to spend a couple of days with him and the team. So I'm very, very pleased with everything that I'm seeing.
Ranadive should be very, very pleased.
After all, O'Neal has the knowledge necessary to help Cousins take that proverbial next step and develop into a true star. And the two are already hanging out:
So, what can Shaq do for his star pupil? And I'm talking about more than giving him fashion tips, because the Diesel is definitely rocking that argyle.
Establish Deeper Post Positioning
Cousins has consistently shown that he has the tools to become a standout post player. At 23, he already has a great deal of moves for a big man with such limited professional experience, and there's no denying his ability to physically dominate down low.
However, his talent and skills haven't quite yet translated into effective back-to-the-basket play.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Cousins scored 0.81 points per possession in post-up situations, which ranks him 90th among NBA players who qualify. It's a solid start for a player just now ready to ink that extension to his rookie contract, but it could be so much better.
One of the main problems is that Cousins doesn't establish himself deep enough in the post. This both limits his low-post possessions and makes the ones he does get more difficult.
Shaq never had to worry about that.
Even late in his career, when he was 38 years old, playing for the Boston Celtics and pretty clearly washed up, the Diesel still consistently set himself up in perfect position on the low block. When he wasn't finishing an alley-oop or preparing for an easy dump-off pass from Rajon Rondo, he established himself right on the edge of the paint (or even closer in some situations).
That made his job a lot easier, and it was a major part of the reason that he shot 66.7 percent from the field during that 2010-11 season. Synergy shows that he was even able to score 0.97 points per possession in the post, the No. 38 mark in the league.
In honing in on Cousins' low-post positioning issues, Shaq first will need to address the young center's attitude. Here are a few plays against the Los Angeles Clippers that show Cousins' lack of an attacking mentality:
There's slow getting up the court, and then there's the extreme lack of urgency Cousins displays. Sneak preview: That effort's not going to change at any point during the play.
Another two seconds have elapsed.
Thanks to the fact that Boogie was literally walking at one point during his tortoise-paced jaunt down the floor, he's still not even to the three-point arc, and eight seconds have ticked off the shot clock.
It takes him another three seconds to establish himself in no-man's land and receive the pass, after which DeAndre Jordan viciously swats his shot away. And, amazingly enough, he showed more urgency on this play than he does the next.
Take note of the shot clock here. There are only eight seconds left if the Kings maintain possession, and it's a fairly crucial situation. Sacramento has been on the wrong end of a scoring run and desperately needs to stop the opponent's momentum.
Cousins wins the tip and then...stands still.
He's still moving at a snail's speed.
This is just about the worst time to forget how to hustle. With the shot clock running down, Boogie either needs to set himself up for a play or clear out and allow his guards some room to work and get off a solid look.
Wait, he's calling for the ball on the elbow with 4.5 seconds remaining?
Yep. Because this turnaround jumper out of the post is exactly what the Kings wanted from this play...
As Shaq said to Amick:
I used to do a million drills I never needed, and then do one or two things that—for example, Dominique Wilkins told me, 'Shaq, don't try to score all 28 (points) in the first half, you're going to tire yourself out for the second half. Seven points a quarter—three jump hooks and a free throw.
That's the type of mentality that Cousins needs to adopt. He has to play to his strengths, and that starts with exerting enough effort to establish himself closer to the hoop.
Make Him a Better Free-Throw Shooter
Preach Defensive Effort and Improve His Mentality
When Amick asked him about what he sees in Cousins' game, O'Neal responded with the following:
I like his game. I like his ferocity. And he hates to lose. When you have those ingredients, like I said it's all about conversation. I was putting up big numbers and couldn't win anything. We'd get swept by Utah every year, and then all it took was one or two conversations—one time I heard Larry Bird say, 'You're the greatest big man ever.' It's just conversations. We're going to have nice, light-hearted conversations. I'm going to teach him one or two things that I think he can do better.
I'm not going to try to change his game—I like his game. But he's the leader on our team, so I'll talk to him about leadership and good examples.
I originally had "Preach Defensive Effort" and "Improve His Mentality" listed as two separate sections of this article, but it makes too much sense to combine them. After all, they both come down to the same thing: attitude.
Shaq may like Cousins' ferocity and disdain for coming up short, but now the legendary big man has to convince his pupil that such an attitude is necessary on both ends of the court. And that means two things.
First, Cousins has to actually start trying on defense.
The number of plays that he takes off is embarrassing. So, too, are the number of times that he gets caught standing straight up and failing to either slow his opponent or shift over and play at least adequate help defense.
This applies to man-to-man situations:
And pick-and-roll scenarios:
It has to change soon, as basketball is very much a two-way sport. For all of Cousins' offensive promise and production, he's sabotaging his talent by failing to exert himself even a tiny bit on the defensive end.
During the 2012-13 season, the Kings actually allowed 1.8 more points per 100 possessions when Cousins was on the court, according to Basketball-Reference. That's an unacceptable split for a bad team's star player.
But it's not just about defense.
The Kentucky product also has to stay on the court, and that means cutting back on the ejections, suspensions and technical fouls. He has to maintain mental focus from start to finish, and that's where many of Shaq's teachings must concentrate.
O'Neal has been there and done that. He dealt with the mental ups and downs of the draining NBA schedule for 19 seasons, and he can certainly speak from experience. Even if he's not the most fantastic role model for constant effort (see: playing yourself back into shape) and positive attitude, he can still draw from his many years in the Association to help pave a successful path for Cousins.
With Shaq in his corner, what's Cousins' ceiling?
It's tough to overlook some aspects of a legend's career, and yet it's still staggering how long O'Neal played basketball. He was drafted in 1992 by the Orlando Magic and didn't retire until the end of the 2010-11 season.
That's nearly two decades of professional experience. If you don't think he's learned how to work with young big men by now, you're fooling yourself.
Cousins was already one of the league's most promising centers before Shaq entered the picture. After all, he's established himself as a premier player with only a few seasons under his belt. Now, he's working with an all-time great.
The sky is truly the limit.