Nobody expected this kind of international incident from DeMarcus Cousins.
An on-court blowup that compromised a relationship with the nations of NATO? Sure.
A technical foul fest marked by trademark scowls that would give new definition to the term "ugly American"? Maybe.
But not this. Not a run of solid play—free of outbursts or controversy—that has clearly distinguished Cousins as Team USA's best big off the bench in the FIBA World Cup.
Boogie was excellent in a 106-71 win over the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, bowling over the opposition with ultra-physical play and dominant interior work. He tallied 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting and, for the fourth consecutive game, looked like the only big man head coach Mike Krzyzewski trusted to relieve Anthony Davis.
Big Cuz threw his weight around, snatching five boards in just 12 minutes, with three coming on the offensive end. Better still, he was active on D, picking up an almost unbelievable six steals in his brief time on the floor.
Even Cousins' biggest backers have to admit their surprise at the way his first-ever stint on Team USA has played out. After all, his attempt to make the 2012 Olympic squad ended with a cut that felt final.
In explaining the reasons for jettisoning Cousins from that team to reporters, USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo didn't mince words:
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.
Branded with an immature, emotional label (because he'd earned it), Cousins faced an uphill battle in making his third time the charm. For a while there, it seemed his reputation would result in yet another dismissal.
2 things from Team USA: post practice games between Durant/Harden/George are epic; Mason Plumlee likely to make team over DeMarcus Cousins— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) July 31, 2014
In the end, Cousins made it. And now, he's making the most of it.
Per Michael Lee of The Washington Post, Cousins explained:
I'm so excited. That's the main reason I wanted to be a part of this team. I'm back and be able to teach the other guys on my [NBA] team things that I've learned overseas. It's going to help me become a better leader, become a better teammate. Take advantage of it every way I can.
He's looking way ahead—perhaps further than his current USA coaching staff would prefer. But comments like those belie the maturity that has either just recently developed or was previously hidden behind Cousins' standoffish demeanor.
At any rate, it would have been a shame if reputation had cost Cousins this opportunity—one his play of late shows he clearly deserved.
And practically speaking, the U.S. needs Cousins. Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee aren't ready, a fact even Cousins' critics readily admit—albeit in a backhanded way:
Complain as we might about Cousins, Plumlee and Drummond are both a LOT worse.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) September 2, 2014
As good as Davis has been (and he's been really, really good), the Brow simply isn't a bruising low-post force like Cousins is. And while you might argue that a player with brute strength on the block isn't a necessity in the sped-up, finesse-fueled international game, well...you're only mostly right.
The U.S. hasn't yet tangled with an opponent against which it'll need real bulk. Brazil's front line options include Anderson Varejao, Nene and Tiago Splitter. Maybe Davis and Kenneth Faried (the team's biggest breakout star) can handle those three on their own, but the starting American bigs lack the muscle to compete with Spain.
If we're being honest, this is a one-game tournament for Team USA, which has already clinched first place in Group C. Spain is the only real foe, the lone squad with at least as much size and skill up front as the U.S. Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka are seasoned stars, capable of competing on equal terms with the American bigs down low and out to the elbows.
Marc Gasol is a monolith—if monoliths had the passing skills of a point guard and the mean streak of a pit bull. More than anyone else, the U.S. will need Cousins to do battle with the hulking Spanish center.
Cousins isn't perfect. He's been awful defensively in this tournament.
Cousins' so weak still in terms of defensive awareness and reactions. Coach K can help that in the coming games.— david b. thorpe (@coachthorpe) September 3, 2014
But those six steals against the D.R. at least indicate he's engaged.
The U.S. has yet to be tested, and it has so far relied mainly on creating chaos on D to fuel its scoring attack. Against a Spanish side that has carved up a tough slate of opponents to the tune of 87.8 points per game—the third-highest mark of any team in the tournament—Team USA won't be able to rely on ball pressure and transition chances.
The Americans will have to take on Spain without the advantage of vastly superior talent.
Cousins will make Spain's bigs work on D, and he'll more than hold his own in what's sure to be a physical battle on the glass. In both of those regards, he offers the U.S. something it can't get from anyone else on the roster. It might be a bridge too far to say Boogie is some kind of secret weapon, but Team USA probably can't win an arms race against Spain without him.
Up to now, Cousins was best known for acting like the world was out to get him. As it turns out, he's the one giving Team USA its best shot to go out and get the world.
Well, Spain, mostly—which is all that matters.