More than 3,000 fans of his new team showed they were believers in DeMarcus Cousins the instant they heard his name. "With the fifth pick in the 2010 NBA draft," commissioner David Stern announced from the podium in Madison Square Garden as the faithful gathered around the video screens inside ARCO Arena last Thursday, "the Sacramento Kings select DeMarcus...." The fans' cheers and applause drowned out the rest.
This is an article from the July 5, 2010 issue
Almost 3,000 miles away, news of the celebration he had set off in California was received with surprise and relief by Cousins, the Kentucky freshman center who had spent the last three months hearing pundits, reporters and NBA executives debate his emotional maturity. Yes, he had an NBA body and great promise, but did he have issues with anger? Could he be coached? Then he heard the commissioner announce his selection, and any doubts about his future vanished, as if Cousins had awakened in New York City from a strange nightmare.
The Kings had been investigating Cousins for weeks as their belief in him rose steadily "like a wave that keeps building," says team president Geoff Petrie. At 6'11" and 292 pounds Cousins averaged a highly efficient 15.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in his brief 23.5 minutes per game while sharing time and touches with four Kentucky teammates who joined him in the first round of the draft, including point guard John Wall, the No. 1 pick overall, by the Wizards. Cousins could be the first overpowering center whom Petrie has deployed in his 20-year pursuit of a championship as an executive with the Kings and the Trail Blazers. "He can be hands down one of the top 10 players in the league," says Kentucky power forward Patrick Patterson, who was picked No. 14 by the Rockets. "He has the size, the ability, the power, and he definitely has the determination and drive."
Petrie is convinced that Cousins will be more than the glass-trembling brute he was in Lexington. During his predraft workout at Sacramento, Cousins made 80 of 95 jump shots inside the three-point line, a higher rate than any other Kings prospect. "He has a fundamentally sound stroke—you just didn't see it at Kentucky because he was in the post pretty much all the time," says Petrie. "You can see he's a tremendous passer if you watch the breakdown videos. His sense of passing out of that low post even now at 19 is very, very good."
Cousins envisions himself becoming not Shaquille O'Neal but a more muscular version of versatile Lakers big man Pau Gasol. Last month following an interview in a sweltering gym in suburban Washington, where he had spent several weeks training for the draft, Cousins strode onto the court in flip-flops and drained three after three while glancing back at a reporter between shots. "Yeah," said his trainer, Keith Williams, "he wants to show you some of that."
When they were contending for championships from 2001 through '04, the Kings were a finesse team. Now they're emphasizing a physical approach, having traded on June 17 for 6'11" Samuel Dalembert—an athletic, if erratic, shot blocker—and building their future around Cousins and reigning rookie of the year Tyreke Evans, a 6'6", 220-pound point guard and a punishing player in his own right. "I've got a lot of respect for Mr. [Andrew] Bynum," says Kings co-owner Joe Maloof of the Lakers' 7-foot, 285-pound center. "But I've got a message for him: You're not going to be pushing [Cousins] around. I don't know how anyone [in the draft] passes on this guy."
That a potentially dominant center was available with the fifth pick of the draft was based on a couple of factors. One has to do with the devaluation of post play over the last decade as the NBA has effectively banned physical defense on the perimeter and liberated athletic slashers with three-point range to dominate the league. The newfound emphasis on perimeter play helps explain why the 6'4" Wall, Ohio State's 6'7" swingman Evan Turner (the No. 2 pick, to the 76ers) and Syracuse's 6'7" forward Wesley Johnson (No. 4, to the Timberwolves) were chosen ahead of Cousins amid little second-guessing. (The Nets used the No. 3 pick on 6'10" power forward Derrick Favors because they already have an emerging center in Brook Lopez.)
The other reason for passing on Cousins was the persistent questions about his maturity. During his season in Lexington, Cousins made the talk shows for allegedly throwing an intentional elbow at a Louisville player in a struggle for a loose ball on Jan. 2 and for reportedly taking a swing at a South Carolina fan after the Gamecocks upset the Wildcats on Jan. 26. (Cousins denied both accusations and neither was corroborated by video or another source.) More damning was an altercation at Erwin High in Birmingham, where Cousins was suspended for the second half of his sophomore season after he admitted punching a school bus driver.
"Whoever picks him is going to have to build a big force field around him," said one executive before the draft. "You wonder about him being able to stand on his own two feet, and now you add the fact that he's about to get a ton of money and publicity...."
Petrie dismisses such concerns as unwarranted. "There was only one incident when he was very young," he says of the school bus fight, "and the people who were there didn't think DeMarcus was the [instigator]. You see all this stuff [about his reputation], but there are never specifics attached to it. He has no criminal record of any kind, no traffic tickets—he doesn't even have a driver's license."
Family and friends describe Cousins as a homebody who doesn't drink—or even like to party. He took up basketball in seventh grade after an extended growth spurt forced him to give up his dream of playing in the NFL. "He got so leggy, I was afraid a hit would mess up his knee," says his mother, Monique Cousins. "He had to find something else to do."
DeMarcus had the size (he was 6'6" at 14) to excel at basketball, but he didn't truly learn the game until his family moved to Mobile, where he played for two years at LeFlore High for coach Otis Hughley. DeMarcus could be seen arguing on the sideline with the coach—a trend that continued at Kentucky—but Hughley insists that their discussions were about tactics. The coach says their creative differences persuaded him to adapt his offense to feature Cousins in the post. "He helped me become a better listener," says Hughley, who returned the favor by giving his prodigy a comprehensive education in such fine points as boxing out and passing out of the double team. "He started to understand he needed to read the whole book from cover to cover, instead of jumping to sections that he just needed for the moment," says Hughley. "Early in his life he had no coping tools to manage his frustrations."
Cousins says he took medication for attention deficit disorder during elementary school but stopped after the sixth grade because it made him feel sluggish. While he was highly popular with the media, fans and teammates at Kentucky, Cousins admits he is slow to trust. "I don't let people know the real me," he says. "But people who really know me, they'll tell you, 'That kid is so smart.' I may not act like it, but when you think I'm not watching, that's when I'm actually on."
Is he too much of a hothead? The Kings answer by saying that they would not have picked Cousins so high if they had not valued his passion. "I don't think you can give somebody a motor who doesn't have one," says Petrie. "But if a guy's got a motor, you've got a chance to get it running on all cylinders."
The ultimate success of DeMarcus Cousins will depend on three initiatives. The Kings must acquire a couple of reliable veterans to tutor him in the importance of hard work at the NBA level, so that he can develop his skills (and reduce his 16.4% body fat). Second, he must continue to lean on Team Cousins, a support group that includes his mother, his agent John Greig and his 24-year-old sister, Ryan, who will live in Sacramento with Cousins throughout the coming season.
But Cousins will be headed nowhere until he resolves initiative number 3: acquire a driver's license. "We really need to get on that," he says, laughing. "I was talking to a team [before the draft], and they said, 'You don't have a driver's license?' They were both joking and serious—like, You need to work on that because you got to get to practice!" For the draft's biggest prospect, it's the little things he does from now on that will make all the difference.
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The Riley Factor
The Heat and the Bulls are now the favorites in the free-agent sweepstakes
The summer of LeBron James begins Thursday, when teams can make their long-anticipated bids to recruit the best free-agent class in league history, and the Bulls and the Heat may have moved to the front of the pack. It's true that no team has accrued more cap space than the Knicks, who have an estimated $34.5 million to spend, but even if James and Chris Bosh moved to New York, the Knicks would need at least one more year to add complementary stars and role players around them. Chicago and Miami, both deeper, will be dealing from stronger hands.
The Bulls' bold decision to trade their No. 17 pick, along with Kirk Hinrich's $9 million salary, to the Wizards will probably leave Chicago with $29.9 million in cap space—enough for a max contract and another near-max deal—to go with its alluring core of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, each of whom is 25 or younger. The Heat unloaded its No. 18 pick along with the $2.2 million salary of Daequan Cook to the Thunder, and could have up to $27.5 million to spend on a max deal and another salary of close to $11 million on players to join Dwyane Wade, who is expected to re-sign with Miami.
The Heat also offers the championship résumé of team president Pat Riley, who leads his rival recruiters in credibility and charisma: League sources praise Riley for developing the underground intelligence and grassroots connections that could make all the difference on July 8, when free agents can be signed to new deals. "I've been at this for two years now," says Riley, who has hinted at returning as coach if it will entice one or more stars to Miami. "We'll go out there and see what the market's all about and where the pieces end up landing."
The market will hinge on whether James decides to play alongside Wade in Miami—a dominating yet potentially fragile partnership that would depend on the willingness of two peaking rivals to defer to one another. If James passes on the Heat, the pressure will grow on him to make a quick decision because he and Wade will suddenly be competing to recruit superstar teammates. The advantage may go to Wade, as he and Riley should be able to work together instantaneously to bid on players from a group that could include Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amar'e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer.
Don't dismiss Cleveland as a contender to retain James. The Cavaliers have a deep roster capable of eliciting a sign-and-trade deal that would provide close to $30 million in additional salary for Bosh, Stoudemire or Johnson beyond what they could get on the open market.
As important as cap space has become over the last two years, the outcome of the weeks ahead will be dictated by inside information and audacious gamesmanship. That's why Riley could emerge as the biggest winner of all.