The Sacramento Kings' recent victory of the New Orleans Pelicans was a multifaceted reminder. The Kings are getting better, looking more and more like a team whose worst rebuilding days are behind it. DeMarcus Cousins is getting better, too, and his 35-point, 14-rebound performance revealed just how much better he's gotten.
Cousins once looked like the NBA's latest headcase, a whirlwind of untapped potential and mind-boggling missteps wrapped up all into one. Now he's a blossoming superstar with the credentials to earn selection to the All-NBA team.
A selection he badly deserves.
Cousins wasn't selected to the All-Star Game despite leading all centers in scoring with 22.3 points per game, and you have to imagine his reputation as a problem child had something to do with it. Similar attitudes could very well preclude an All-NBA team selection, but they shouldn't. The talent is there, the efficiency is there and—most importantly—an improved attitude is certainly there.
In fact, it's hard to argue Cousins isn't maturing before our eyes.
According to The Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones, Cousins recently apologized to Sean Elliott for an incident that happened back in 2012. What's more, he wasn't trying to make a publicity stunt out of it: "What happened between me and Sean the other day was just me being man enough to admit that I was wrong. I wasn’t expecting it to get out. I was hoping it was going to be something between me and him."
That's nothing if not progress. But this isn't the first time Cousins made mea culpa for an unwise move.
After a spat with then head coach Keith Smart, he had this to say (again per Jones): "I messed up. I'm apologizing to all my teammates for it, for responding the way I did, and we'll move on from it...I grow from all of my mistakes."
Cousins is still far from perfect. USA Today's Sam Amick details one incident from last December:
At some point midway through the second half, Cousins heard something from a fan whose seat was behind the Kings bench in the lower concourse that he clearly didn't appreciate. It's unclear exactly what was said by the fan, although one account at the time on Twitter indicated that the fan yelled at him to pass the ball. According to eyewitness accounts of two people on hand that night, the 23-year-old franchise centerpiece who was given a four-year, $62 million deal in late September reacted by allegedly grabbing his crotch and shouting a gratuitous expletive that was, to put it mildly, an inappropriate sexual suggestion.
So yeah, there's that.
But let's get this much straight—Cousins isn't a bad guy. He's young, and he's prone to temper tantrums. More often than not, he sees the light and makes amends for it. There are worse things than being passionate, and there are plenty of very good players who've battled through maturity issues.
None of that should stand in the way of recognition. These are the hurdles restless souls must clear, and in time, Cousins will turn the corner. He's off to a much better start under head coach Mike Malone's tutelage. They might even understand each other, according to Grantland's Jonathan Abrams:
Cousins began his first conversation with new Kings coach Mike Malone by making two declarations: (1) Most of his problems stemmed from his frustration in losing, and (2) he was coachable. “You and I have a lot in common already,” Malone replied. “I hate to lose as well. There are a lot of guys in the NBA that like to win. Not all guys hate to lose.”
Whatever you think about his antics, Cousins' play on the court has bordered on dominant. Probably in part because of that whole thing about hating losing. Cousins does his part to avoid it on a nightly basis.
Besides the obvious impact he makes on the offensive end, Cousins is collecting 11.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. Think he's too selfish? To the contrary, he's also racking up three assists per contest, which ranks third among centers behind Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol.
By any statistical metric, Cousins has developed into a well-rounded and skilled player. Though considerable attention is traditionally paid to Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert, it's virtually impossible to argue either has had a better season than Cousins.
To be selected to an All-NBA team, Cousins would roughly need to rank as one of the league's three best centers. Though there's always some ambiguity between many 4s and 5s, the fairest assessment would rank him alongside Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah—in no particular order.
Noah is easily the most versatile center in the game, as indicated by those 5.2 assists per contest. His mobility and ability to guard the pick-and-roll are virtually unmatched, and his tenacity (and intangibles in general) are legendary. Noah has far and away been the Chicago Bulls' best player this season, and it's hard to imagine him not getting an All-NBA nod.
And we know plenty about Howard. He's helped turn the Houston Rockets into legitimate contenders and made his struggles with the Los Angeles Lakers a distant memory. Defensive dominance alone will get Howard an All-NBA selection, but his 18.5 points per game certainly won't hurt.
Besides Gasol and Hibbert, the only other center you could really make a case for is the Charlotte Bobcats' Al Jefferson. The problem is that Jefferson trails Cousins ever so slightly in every statistical category, save field-goal percentage where he's ahead by a thin margin. True, the Bobcats will make the playoffs this season—but they also play in the Eastern Conference.
The Kings might well be a playoff team too out East.
Cousins' offensive numbers speak for themselves. But what really distinguishes his game is the ability to score in a variety of ways, from the high and low post alike.
Cousins is also a better defender than you might think.
Bleacher Report's Dan Favale offered a thorough examination of his defense in January, also noting that, "Cousins is allowing fewer points per possession than Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol (injured), Joakim Noah, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan."
There are some good defenders on that list, most notably Howard. Cousins isn't as dominant above the rim, but he's a big body that's tough to move around in the post. And he's learning how to use that body by the day, helping Sacramento improve upon last season's even more dreadful defense.
Love him or hate him, Cousins is awfully good—top-three-center-in-the-league kind of good. Here's to hoping the NBA finally admits it.