DeMarcus Cousins isn’t the first NBA player to enter the league boasting special talents while also falling short a few screws. However, he is unique in that he’s made it 19 months into his pro career without either side – the talent or the personality – winning out in a clear fashion.
On one hand, Cousins has blossomed into a physical interior force and a crucial component to the young core of the Sacramento Kings. On the other hand, he hasn’t exactly grown up, clashing with teammates and coaches while carrying an inflated sense of entitlement even as he produced on court.
Both sides of the Kentucky product and former No. 5 over-all pick were on display during a recent visit to Toronto to take on the Raptors. Prior to the game, my trifecta of interview requests as he sat idly at his locker were each met with disproving head shakes (and no eye contact) before he popped on a pair of headphones. In that time, the only sound byte offered by the 21-year old came as he loudly beckoned a Kings’ equipment staffer to bring him a pair of flip flops which sat on the floor, about three steps from his location.
After the game, he would warn teammate Marcus Thornton not to insert his name into the lyrics of a hip-hop song which Sacramento’s leading scorer was singing and fume upon learning that his bag had already been sent along to the team bus when he needed items from it.
In between these glimpses of Cousins’ surly demeanor, he also happened to post 21 points and a career-high 19 rebounds in helping the Kings to their first road win of the season.
Cousins’ vexing combination of elite raw abilities and maturity issues can’t be considered surprising to team brass, considering that was precisely the book on him in college and high school, but it has already led to a team-imposed suspension for the youngster and was, reportedly, one of the key factors in the firing of head coach Paul Westphal.
Keith Smart, who stepped in once Westphal was terminated, will emphasize the need to come into the job without a pre-conceived notion about his center, but acknowledges that the two will have work to do if certain patterns of behaviour continue.
“When he gets it all together – from a basketball standpoint, from a physical standpoint, conditioning-wise – we have a very special player,” says Smart of Cousins. “But I want him to not have all the attention of everything that has gone on with him. I’m looking at him as a new guy. I’m a new coach – prove me wrong that you can be this person that people have talked about. And right now, I haven’t seen it.”
Cousins isn’t willing to lend much lip service to questions about his character (or anything, for that matter), nor should he be.
However, his dismissive comments about locker room tensions point to a problematic unwillingness to take responsibility for his attitudes that have caused reported rifts in the Kings’ locker room.
“I’m just trying to put all this silly stuff behind me,” says Cousins in reference to the reports of clashes with Westphal and some teammates. “I’m just trying to help my team win and that’s all I want to do.”
You can’t blame him for refusing to address reports of attitude problems, but Cousins could help his cause significantly by owning up to some of his behaviour and taking some accountability, particularly when teammate Tyreke Evans is willing to tell reporters that he has had a good week because “he hasn’t been arguing with anybody on the team.”
Evans’ comments, touting Cousins’ improved focus since Smart was promoted to the head coaching job last week, were made in a positive context, but they still hinted at a volatile side that could still emerge at any given time (and did in small doses on Wednesday night in Toronto).
On nights like this one, when the Kings are winning and Cousins is producing, all is good and the odd surly glare or mistreatment of an equipment guy can be swept under the rug.
However, this is a young squad that will endure plenty of bumps along the road and Smart will have his hands full with keeping his big man in check throughout the highs and lows.