We walked into this week knowing that opening night would consume a huge portion of our attention. The pageantry, the excitement, David Stern, India and a packed house of screaming fans – all culminating in a 90-88 victory. We were also well aware that the decision on whether or not to keep Jimmer Fredette was due by Halloween. It was a news-heavy week that often masked the reason why you come to a basketball website like this one.
In case you missed it, the 2013-14 NBA season is underway. The Sacramento Kings are 1-2, but I’m not sure that we’ve taken a moment to appreciate what the team is doing on the court and in particular, how well DeMarcus Cousins is playing.
It’s no secret that Cousins is an enigma. He has spent the last three seasons both tantalizing his coaches with his talent and frustrating them with his antics. After three games, I believe we are left with the same sense.
The new Kings regime paid the 23-year-old center more than $60 million to anchor its sapling franchise this summer with hopes that he can put it all together. While the naysayers have called them fools, the Kings are banking that with the right nurturing, Cousins will arrive as a player.
The sample size is small. Sacramento hasn’t gone through a prolonged losing streak or even played four games yet. While the changes we’re seeing in Cousins’ game appear sustainable, his effort on the court needs to remain consistent.
Through the Kings’ first two games, Cousins averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds in 37.5 minutes per game. Sacramento is running its offense through Cousins on almost every possession and for the most part, he has answered the call.
The Clippers have seen a lot of Cousins over the last two weeks. During their preseason matchup, Cousins scorched them for 31 points and 11 rebounds in just 28 minutes. The former Kentucky star backed up that performance with a 26-point, 10-rebound game Friday night.
“He looks good,” Clippers All-Star Blake Griffin said. “He’s a force – tough to stop.”
After three seasons of watching Cousins wander around the perimeter, he is doing some serious damage down in the post early in this season.
“He’s drifted around in the past a little bit,” Griffin said. “But he’s so dominant down low that obviously that’s their game plan.”
Cousins is using his increased touches in the block as an opportunity to dominate some of the league’s best defensive big men. In fact, JaVale McGee and DeAndre Jordan had to sit for long stretches after Cousins put them in foul trouble over the first two games.
The fourth-year center’s play has made a strong impression on visiting coaches, as well. “He’s playing great,” Doc Rivers said. “He’s just a monster. He’s huge, number one. He’s skilled, he controls the game. He’s still very emotional, and that’s the only area that he’ll have to grow in, but he will.”
NBA superstar Chris Paul knows how volatile Cousins can be. On Friday night, he spent the better part of the third quarter baiting the Kings’ big man, attempting to get a rise out of Cousins. The new look Cousins didn’t bite and the attempts to get a reaction by Paul looked forced and obvious.
And gamesmanship didn’t end on the court. Paul refused to even mention the Kings’ starting center in his post-game interview, even when asked direct questions about Cousins. The Clippers got the win, but Cousins looked like the bigger man.
So far Cousins has worked hard to keep his emotions in check. He picked up his first technical of the season in the fourth quarter against the Clippers, but it was for taunting Paul after a big block and not for arguing with the refs. A coach can live with his star player celebrating a huge defensive play.
“He’s emotional,” Rivers said. “But don’t get that mixed up with ‘he’s a bad kid.’ He’s a terrific kid, he just gets emotional and he’ll grow out of that, too.”
There is no question that Cousins is an extremely emotional player and sometimes it’s difficult for him to bring the same effort night in and night out. On Saturday night against the Warriors, we saw the inconsistency that has plagued his game throughout his pro career. As their franchise player, the Kings need Cousins to fight through these types of games.
“DeMarcus has shown that when he comes out and plays with energy and fire and emotion, he is arguably one of the best big men in the NBA,” coach Malone told media following the Kings’ loss to the Warriors. “But as a team, it wasn’t just DeMarcus, I want to make that clear. As a team tonight, our effort was nowhere near where it needs to be.”
But Malone knows that the Sacramento Kings go as far as Cousins can take them. For a team built around a potential All-Star center, they need more than the eight-point, seven-rebound performance that Cousins mustered up on Saturday. They need him to play more than just 18 minutes, and they need more than the lackluster effort he put forth.
It’s only one game in a long season, and Cousins is bound to have a few more like this. Bringing the same level of intensity night in and night out is extremely difficult, but if Cousins wants to call himself the leader of this team, it comes with more than just the accolades of success.
Call this a learning experience. Cousins has put in the work to improve his overall game. He is in great physical shape, and throughout training camp and the early season he has been incredible.
The Kings are 1-2 against three very good opponents. Cousins has shown a snippet of just how good he can be, and expectations are only going to rise from here. He has all of the tools to be an All-Star and an Olympian, but he also has a long way still to go. He has all the talent in the world, but he needs to remember that nothing is more obvious to spot than a lack of effort.