DeMarcus Cousins could be on the verge of creating an international incident at the FIBA World Cup this summer, a thought that both intrigues and terrifies Team USA, the NBA and fans of the volatile, talented big man.
Now in special demand after Kevin Love and Blake Griffin pulled out of camp, Cousins is the most experienced interior player on Team USA's roster. Suddenly, a guy who has twice been invited to camp as a polite afterthought is a key piece of the USA's basketball fortunes.
With the hulking, experienced Spanish team looming as serious competition, Cousins is someone Team USA badly needs.
Anthony Davis is a lock to make the team and start at center, and there's a great chance he winds up using this summer's tournament to break out in a bigger way than anyone. But Andre Drummond, green and untested as big men get, is the only other option behind the New Orleans Pelicans' budding superstar.
Face it, Team USA needs Cousins. Cousins, though, might need Team USA even more.
It's hard to think of a better opportunity for the big man to rehabilitate his reputation and show the world his considerable skills all at once. But to this point, his abilities have largely been overshadowed by his on-court personality.
Cousins has led the league in technical fouls in each of the past two NBA seasons and has amassed more such violations than anyone since coming into the league in 2010-11. If there were statistics for frowns, whining and frustrated headshakes, he'd be the runaway leader in those, too.
His are ugly technicals, typically stemming from complaints and childish griping toward officials. And sadly, that's the first thing most people think of when it comes to Cousins—the way he gets caught up with referees to the detriment of his own game and his team's success.
It's a shame, because Cousins' talent is beyond question. If not for his body language and blowups, he'd be a lock to make Team USA. The fact that he earned another camp invite at all speaks to the undeniable value he has as a player, which is steadily increasing.
Cousins is getting better, and even if some of his statistical growth feels anomalous (his defensive rating from last season does not square with his effort level on film), there's no doubt his talent earns him a place among the game's best bigs.
Team USA is rightfully intrigued by that talent but is also simultaneously wary of Cousins' immaturity and the potential for ugliness in international play. It would be a bad look for USA hoops (and, if you're willing to assign real-world significance to basketball games, America as a whole) if Cousins were to get into it with officials or opponents.
Unfortunately, the hostile environment in Spain, charged-up crowds and tighter refereeing provides a perfect recipe for a Cousins meltdown. Everyone, especially Team USA, wants to believe Cousins can overcome his lack of restraint.
But the fact is, nobody's seen him do that consistently yet.
There are real signs of hope, though. USA coaches have been impressed with Cousins' effort and desire in Las Vegas.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski told Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:
(Cousins) has continued to get into better shape. We love the fact he’s committed. He’s trying like crazy. He’s come (to the training session) multiple times. That level of commitment is not just to be admired, it needs to be talked about.
Per Voisin, Team USA officials, despite their praise, remain cautious:
They won’t say they really need Cousins – although they do, particularly if both Gasol brothers compete in Madrid – because they want to see if he fits in and hear what he has to say or, rather, what he doesn’t have to say. In essence, the fifth-year center must refrain from griping at referees and earning the technical fouls that account for much of his baggage, while proving he can be both a dominating presence and an agreeable, accommodating teammate.
As has been the case throughout Cousins' career, everybody is waiting for him to prove that his emotional and mental maturity have caught up with his rapidly improving game. We've seen four years of incremental progress, but this summer offers Cousins his best chance yet to show he's finally achieved the balance necessary to excel.
"I think everybody has something to prove," Cousins told reporters. "You never want to just settle for whatever your last accomplishment was, so everybody here has something to prove."
Some more than others.
It's not enough to simply say Team USA needs Cousins because he's objectively a good player.
It needs him because his ball skills and passing chops make him a perfect fit in a wide-open, free-flowing international offense. It needs him because he's a physically imposing presence who won't back down from anyone. It needs him because Davis can't handle the Gasol brothers on his own.
But more than anything, Cousins needs Team USA.
If he can make the squad, let his game do the talking and play a key role in winning gold, Cousins could author a new chapter in his career. He could change the narrative for the better.
If things go wrong, though, it'll be hard to continue holding out hope that Cousins will ever change.