DeMarcus Cousins can be difficult to like and even tougher to understand. He can be brash, impassioned and belligerent. He can be sullen, seemingly embittered and distant. Most importantly, he can be—and usually is—irretrievably polarizing.
This blend of character traits, this personality stew, has defined Cousins for almost five years. In that time he has represented a lot of things. Unfilled promise. Self-implosion. Flagrant immaturity. His face and his game have become synonymous with the Sacramento Kings' years-long downturn.
Suspensions aren't uncommon. Technical fouls have become his calling card. He bathes in conflict and sleeps with drama. And because he's so unique, so undeniably and, at times, destructively fascinating, he's been singled out—portrayed in what is usually a negative and pessimistic light.
But not anymore.
Times have changed. Cousins has changed. After a long wait, he is, without question, blossoming into a star.
Were star statuses founded solely upon numbers, Cousins' standing among the league's best wouldn't be an issue anymore. He has statistical credentials to buttress his long, winding climb through the NBA ranks.
Last season Cousins was the only player to average at least 20 points, 11 rebounds, 2.5 assists and one block per game. In fact, only four other players in NBA history under the age of 24 have matched that single-season output while also coming up with one steal per game: Charles Barkley, Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Garnett.
Three Hall of Famers, and one Hall of Fame-bound great (Garnett). Most 23-year-olds don't keep that kind of company; Cousins, now 24, does.
On-court warts and all, he's transformed into a statistical powerhouse. He ranked fifth in player efficiency rating last season (26.1), behind only Anthony Davis (26.5), Kevin Love (26.9), LeBron James (29.3) and Kevin Durant (29.8).
The list of players who have registered a PER above 26 before turning 24 while averaging at least 30 minutes and appearing in 70 or more games is short. It includes just 16 names and reads like a who's who of Hall of Famers and perennial All-Stars.
That Cousins is now on it lends further merit to his numerical case. His skill set is uncommon for his position. He has the offensive range of LaMarcus Aldridge, the passing acumen of Marc Gasol and the self-sufficient, ball-on-the-floor chops of Davis. He's someone you can build a team around.
And while he hasn't always been the ideal candidate, the Kings haven't really helped. The talent they've put around him in recent years hasn't been conducive to winning or moving forward. Rather, it's pinned them to a perpetual state of rebuilding, for which Cousins cannot be entirely—or even partially—blamed. Not anymore.
Even his most obvious tactical misgivings have begun ebbing into insignificance. Cousins' defense has always been spotty and headlined by delayed reactions or complete inaction, but it has improved.
Midway through last season, he was keeping pace with some of the most defensively recognized centers in the game. When all was said and done, he was allowing 101 points per 100 possessions on a team relinquishing 108.8. He also ranked in the top half of opponent field-goal percentage among players who appeared in at least 25 games and contested five or more shots at the rim a night.
No, it wasn't perfect. It was progress. And it continued during his stint on Team USA for the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
Cut from the team in 2012, amid USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo citing his immaturity, Cousins bruised and barreled his way to a gold medal in 2014, displaying keen offensive awareness and a willingness to lead by example.
"Up to now, Cousins was best known for acting like the world was out to get him," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes astutely observed. "As it turns out, he's the one giving Team USA its best shot to go out and get the world."
Go out and get the world they did, largely thanks to one surprising face belonging to a player finally good enough for the global stage.
Remember the version of Cousins that could be found languishing in self-pity and skirting even the most minor responsibilities?
Of course you do.
Well, that dude is gone.
Since departing Team USA, Cousins hasn't lost momentum. He hasn't suffered a relapse and returned to his old, combative, unpredictable ways.
Instead of wallowing in denial and deflection, Cousins accepted the call for accountability once training camp began, exhibiting the sort of self-reflection that is expected of, well, players who aren't him.
"Being a defensive anchor,” Cousins responded upon being asked what he wanted to add to his game, per The Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones. “I really believe I can do it. Even besides that, just being the best leader I can be for this team. I know I’m not perfect and I probably never will be, but I’m aiming to be the best leader I can be for this team.”
Talk like that is cheap, of course. Even Cousins' most loyal supporters will need to see him take action before buying stock in his words.
Weeks before opening tip, Cousins took action:
Five. That's the number of technical fouls Cousins hopes to limit himself to, a challenge laid upon him by teammate Reggie Evans. And make no mistake, it is a challenge. Cousins was whistled for 16 technicals in 2013-14, 17 in 2012-13 and 12 during an abbreviated 2011-12 campaign.
Holding himself to five or fewer technicals wouldn't just be an accomplishment; it would be a transcendent feat. Tim Duncan was called for more last season (eight). So, too, was the huggable Goran Dragic (seven).
To reach his goal, Cousins will have to show unprecedented and unfamiliar restraint. Merely accepting the challenge, though, is—for him—a step in the right direction.
Much of that begins with Evans, who has taken Cousins under his wing, per Jones:
Me and Reggie talked yesterday and Reggie’s been on my head this camp, he’s been on my head. And that’s the guy I go to when I’m ready to vent. Whenever I’m having a problem I go to Reggie. I’m a vet but he’s my vet. And I’m all ears. That’s a guy I truly respect on this team. He’s set goals for me, I set goals for him, we set goals for the team. In order for me to be a better leader, I can’t be getting ejected, getting these technicals. Without me on the floor it’s hard for this team to win games. He challenged me and told me no more than five this year so I’m accepting the challenge.
Veteran guidance isn't a luxury Cousins previously enjoyed. He instantly became the face of Sacramento's franchise, a role he couldn't fully understand. His flaws and outbursts have since been magnified. To that extent, he has been a victim of circumstance.
Although Evans is a shocking source of direction, the origin of wisdom isn't important. Cousins is upbeat and mentally adapted in ways he's never been. That's what matters.
Meaningful games have yet to be played, and already he seems different—which is to say, he talks and acts like the leader Sacramento needed all along.
The Final Phase
After all he's done, after all he's proved and dispelled, Cousins' transformation isn't complete. That's the scary part of all this. As good as he is, as different as he seems, this is only the beginning.
But it's an important beginning.
Sustaining his new image is paramount to Cousins' survival. Recent evolution cannot reveal itself as a facade or hub of deception. This Cousins has to stick. And it's safe to say he will because, for the first time ever, this hotbed for confusion warrants faith. Past transgressions pale in comparison to what we know now.
Of anything he has ever been called, nothing holds more weight or carries more meaning than the latest designation he's unmistakably earned. It took some time, and the journey wasn't exactly smooth, but the wait is over.
Cousins is deservedly, and finally, a star.