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After busy summer, Cousins ready to take his place among NBA elite

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Of course there's a dog living in the wine cellar.

This is, after all, the home of enigmatic Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. Blake Griffin may not be welcome here, but all things unconventional and against the grain most certainly are. Not that there's no normalcy to be found in the two-story, five-bedroom abode.

Here in this quiet neighborhood a few miles away from his basketball home on the other side of Interstate 5, there's the standard big-screen television and the obligatory PlayStation 3 that are staples in the home of any pro athlete these days. Pictures of his past hang in the hallway with framed magazine covers (Sports Illustrated among them) highlighting his exploits at Kentucky. In the living room, two large paintings of Cousins wearing home and road Kings uniforms are the centerpieces of adjacent walls.

Loso, a white English bulldog with large brown spots and, of course, a Kings collar, rests nearby behind the metal gate with rods that look like vines. The resident alpha dog, meanwhile, settles into the family room sofa to discuss his summer and the notion that he could join the NBA's elite this season.

***

Before the first question can even be completed, Cousins -- looking lean with a 6-foot-11 frame that is nearly 20 pounds lighter than it was at the end of last season -- provides a reminder as to why he's rattled so many cages in recent years. He is forever candid and uncouth, and, in this case, quick to correct the premise of a reporter's first question.

His experience with the U.S. select team in Las Vegas in July won't be remembered as a positive one, he insists, and his well-publicized dust-up with USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo is to blame.

"No, it wasn't [positive]," Cousins interjected unapologetically. "No."

During the week in which the select squad played against the Olympic team as training for the London Olympics, Cousins drew criticism for being too physical in scrimmages. Colangelo told reporters that Cousins "has some growing up to do." Cousins later approached Colangelo to discuss their rift.

"I didn't enjoy it," he said of the experience. "I went out there, and ... I'm not going to say I didn't learn anything from it, because I did. But it was just, in my mind, another political battle. I learned more about politics. I saw the work ethic of the so-called elite in the league, and I took some notes from that and took that back with me. But as far as the rest of it? No.

"Honestly, the scrimmages were one-sided the whole time. To even have a chance, you had to play hard as hell. We were out there getting our heads knocked off, and if they're going to play physical, then I'm going to play physical back. I'm not out there trying to start fights -- just trying to stand on my own. But I guess the ignorance of people is they take it as being immature."

Cousins was battling for the Olympic spot that opened when Griffin went down with a knee injury. (Griffin has become something of an arch nemesis in Cousins' mind, their one-sided tiff coming to a head last season when Cousins deemed Griffin "an actor" who is "babied" by the NBA.) While Cousins eventually lost out to another former Kentucky big man, No. 1 pick Anthony Davis, his tough play ultimately won him some fans.

"He's had a couple really good days here back-to-back," Colangelo said after the select team camp. "His play, his demeanor, his conduct, everything."

More than two months later, Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie agreed that Cousins seemed to take a step forward this offseason.

"It has the potential for a really significant growth year for him," Petrie told SI.com. "On the physical side for sure, he really consistently worked on his conditioning, played every day for the past couple weeks here getting ready. He's shooting the ball very well. He's coming into camp in the best shape I've ever seen him, really.

"So if we can combine the physical improvement with some skill improvement and some mental improvement, then there could be some real growth. ... It's all still in the development phase. He's a player where the elevator for him can still go way up, and we'll keep working with him to try to get him there."

The list of elite NBA centers is a short one: the Lakers' Dwight Howard and Philadelphia's Andrew Bynum. But the idea that Cousins is closing fast in the big-man race is as real as the sneer on his face when he was asked to argue on his own behalf.

"I'm not going to even speak on" who is the best big man in the game, said Cousins, who averaged 18.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks last season for the 22-44 Kings. "Whoever you consider the best in the game, just check my game against theirs. Go look at the game stats and you tell me.

"My game speaks for itself. Regardless of our team's record, their team's record, or who made the playoffs or whatever, I'm one of the best big men in this game right now."

Cousins' trainer, Keith Williams, believes his client has turned a corner.

"I think a light has clicked on," he said as he sat near Cousins in his home. "It's not as bright as we want it to be, but it's getting there."

***

Should Cousins become a mainstay on the Western Conference All-Star team, he has the potential to be an All-Interview regular as well.

Sometimes surly, other times comedic or insightful, and always unfiltered, Cousins is a reporter's dream when it comes to -- as the kids say -- keeping it real. In a 30-minute chat, he didn't hold back on a number of touchy topics.

• Cousins revealed for the first time that his former girlfriend from his hometown of Mobile, Ala., gave birth to his son, Amir, five months ago. It was, to be clear, one of the few times in the interview that he offered a hearty smile, speaking of how fatherhood had changed his perspective:

"It's fun. I'm enjoying it. You've got to grow up fast. It's an added responsibility. Now you're not just a role model for the fans, you're a role model for someone who is actually looking up to you. It changes your mindset."

• On his distant memories of Paul Westphal, the former Kings coach who consistently battled with Cousins before he was fired seven games into last season:

"Every chance [people] get, they bring it [the Westphal incident] back up, never accepting the fact that maybe it was Westphal and it wasn't DeMarcus. But hell, we're going to stick with DeMarcus, to say it was DeMarcus. I haven't had an incident since, so you tell me.

"We've moved on, and we've gotten better from it. But I don't feel like I was treated right [by the organization] in that whole situation."

• On his summer workout routine that has drawn so much praise from his Kings bosses:

"I basically doubled up my workouts. Even when [agent and adviser John Greig] wasn't in town, I still made sure I worked out. I was in the gym, running every night, watching the way I eat, watching my calorie count. Every little small thing.

"We haven't really worried about the [exact] weight, but I don't want to overdo it. I'm watching what I eat, trying not to eat too many heavy meals. I wasn't [doing that before]. Well, I was, but I wasn't as disciplined."

Last offseason and during the season under Westphal, Cousins said, "I put in the work but there was nothing positive coming out of it. No matter how much I did, it was never good enough. I wanted to be good. I wanted to be great. I wanted to be in the best shape. But at the same time, if I don't have the support system that's there and that's also trying to help me get there, then what can I do? What I'm saying is that was the Westphal era. Now we all have a goal, we know where we want to be. Me and coach [Keith Smart] are on the same page, so it's easier to get it done."

• On the team and, specifically, the dynamic between him and fourth-year guard Tyreke Evans:

"At the end of the day, everybody in that locker room knows this team is myself and Tyreke's. I don't give a [expletive] about no articles [asking whose team it is]. This team goes as far as we carry it."

• On the Lakers' new Super Team:

"That's whatever. I don't care. Dwight, Andrew, same thing. That's something they have to work out. I couldn't care less about the Lakers."

• On playing in the frontcourt with rookie power forward Thomas Robinson, the Kansas product who fell to fifth in the draft after being projected as high as No. 2:

"His motor is crazy. That alone will help him. I really see him being like [Utah's] Paul Millsap. He's going to help us out a lot as well. He's not really the political type [personality-wise]. He's going to get straight to the chase. He's got a lot to prove. He came in the league the same way I did -- thinking like, 'Why is no one else believing in me? Why did I drop down so much?' He's definitely got a killer-instinct mindset, which I like, and he's trying to prove people wrong."

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