DeMarcus Cousins made huge strides during the 2013-14 season. The center set new career highs in scoring average, rebounds per game, field-goal percentage, player efficiency rating, offensive rating, defensive rating and win shares.
However, anyone who watched Cousins during his first three years in the league knew that type of production was well within his grasp. The real questions surrounding the 24-year-old related to his maturity on and off the court.
Yet his inclusion on Team USA for the 2014 FIBA World Cup shows that he's also overcoming many of the issues with his attitude.
The 2012 USA Select Team Debacle
Cousins' inclusion on Team USA for the FIBA World Cup would be an accomplishment in any scenario. Only the league's elite players make the squad, and getting the recognition shows people have taken notice of how good he's become.
Yet it's even more noteworthy when looking back at the center's first introduction to USA Basketball and the embarrassment he caused during workouts with the 2012 USA Select team.
Cousins was invited to participate with the team in an effort to help prepare the senior squad prior to the 2012 Olympics. Needless to say, it did not go smoothly.
Cousins was a disruption during practices, incessantly fouling the other players.
That spurred USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo to question Cousins' maturity while speaking with reporters:
Show respect to players, and you get respect back. He needs to mature as a person, as a player if he’s going to have an outstanding NBA career. So before there’s discussion about him being part of our program, he has a lot of building to do…
He has a lot of growing up to do.
Even though Colangelo's words were disappointing to hear, what he said wasn't all that shocking. That was the prevailing wisdom surrounding Cousins.
He was just another gifted player who wasn't doing the things he needed to do to maximize his potential.
Making Strides During the 2013-14 Season
The story with Cousins began to hit an upswing during the 2013-14 season.
Of course, a big component to it was his improvement on the court. Instead of being a talented player who had yet to tap into his potential, Cousins' production started to match that of a player with his talents.
Among centers, Cousins was first in scoring, second in field-goal attempts per game, fourth in rebounds, third in assists, first in steals and second in double-doubles. In short, he became potentially the league's best center and certainly one of its top two or three.
But he also improved upon his maturity and started to become more of a leader for the Kings.
As head coach Michael Malone told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee, he was happy with the growth Cousins showed during the season, especially following an ejection in February:
We’ve talked about DeMarcus Cousins the player, but let’s talk about DeMarcus Cousins the person, the leader on and off the court. People have to remember he’s still a young kid. He’s 23 years old. He’s growing into his leadership role. It’s not something where he’s “Boom, I’ve arrived, I’m your leader” and know he’ll be able to excel in that role right away. What I saw was a young man making a very concerted effort to become a better leader, a better teammate, bring positive energy. After he got thrown out of the Houston game (in February) and served that one-game suspension, that’s when I really noticed it – leaving the referees alone, being supportive and patting his teammates on the backside, leading this team to wins.
As the coach noted, Cousins is evolving as a leader. And while that evolution is a constant process, it's also not something that occurs with the snap of a finger.
Carrying It into the Offseason
Cousins has carried that maturation process into the offseason. He's putting in the work to become a better leader for the Kings. Part of that was evident in the time leading up to the Las Vegas Summer League, when the Kings held a voluntary minicamp.
Since attending the camp was optional, Cousins could have continued to work on his own. Yet the 24-year-old made the decision to work out with the Kings and provide an example to the younger players who were slated to participate in the summer league.
As Malone told Jones, he was pleased with this development:
I give DeMarcus a ton of credit. We had a voluntary minicamp in the middle of June, and as the leader of the team, he was there every day. So I’ve never had a problem with getting DeMarcus in the gym, working hard, setting the tone, leading by example.
And the fact that he went through practice last night, came in today and will be here again tonight just shows his commitment, his willingness to set the tone and establish a relationship with our new player in Nik (Stauskas) and continue to work with Ben (McLemore) and Ray (McCallum). He is constantly developing as a person, as a player, and I love the direction he’s headed in.
The center has also kept it going during his time trying out for the national team leading up to the World Cup. He showed up at the practices with a much better attitude than the one he displayed in 2012, and people with USA Basketball have taken notice.
One person in particular who's been impressed is Mike Krzyzewski, who's coaching the U.S. squad in the World Cup and was around when things went awry with the Select team a couple years ago.
“All the coaches were really pleased with DeMarcus and how he played,” said Krzyzewski during a media teleconference. “His attitude [has been] tremendous. He wouldn’t keep coming back to be a part of this and be on a U.S. Team if it didn’t mean something to him. We recognized that even before he started practice – the fact he was there, committed and ready to go in good shape.” (per NBA.com)
Now the right people are taking notice of Cousins' development. He's still not a finished product, but he's headed in the right direction.
Cousins needs to keep this going, both the improvements he's made on the court and the adjustments he's made to his attitude.
But it wouldn't be wise to bet against him doing just that. As The Sacramento Bee's Ailene Voisin points out, few would've thought we'd be sitting here today with Cousins a member of the USA team.
Talk about a miraculous recovery. Two years ago, when Cousins was among the invitees who scrimmaged against the 2012 Olympians at the training camp in Las Vegas, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo practically chased him out of the gym. The gambling crowd would have gone broke betting on the guy. The young center was characterized as too aggressive, too physical, too generous with the elbows, too chatty with the referees.
Yet if Cousins flunked his original audition, he stubbornly returned for a refresher course in 2013. He re-enrolled again these past several weeks, and finally, for the first time in his pro career, he aced the test. If he were still in school, everyone would be looking up to the 6-foot-11, 270-pound kid with the gold star pasted on his forehead.
The next step in that evolution is helping the Kings get back to the postseason. It's good that he's become of the league's best centers. It's great that he's making strides as the leader Sacramento needs. But he won't get the full recognition he deserves until it leads to better results on the court.
"The only way he’s going to get what he wants is for this team to win and to win consistently," Malone said. "When we can become a team that can win and be a playoff contender, then he’ll be an All-Star, because he has that type of talent."
Like everything else, that also won't happen overnight, especially in a stacked Western Conference. But he's already come this far. Who's to say he won't continue the maturation process?
If Cousins has shown anything over the past couple years, it's that we shouldn't bet against him.
What do you think about Cousins' development? Let me know on Twitter @SimRisso