Is DeMarcus Cousins Salvageable?

DeMarcus Cousins had one of the most intriguing rookie seasons of recent memory. Constant clashes with multiple bodies on and off the court; a knack for both scoring by the bundle and taking shots that even Michael Beasley shakes his head at; a monster both at rebounding the ball and fouling the opposition; unique passing skills for a big man that occasionally translate to assists and occasionally just become turnovers. There is seemingly nothing good that DeMarcus can’t do on a basketball court, but at the same time, he also possesses every negative trait in the book. For him to fulfill the considerable potential that got him drafted, he’s going to have to learn which of those traits he should develop, and which traits he should drop like they were Mike Bibby on a 2011 NBA roster.

At this point it’s pretty clear what DeMarcus can and can’t do. DeMarcus’ offensive game hinges on two things – how close he is to the basket, and how much he dribbles. It’s that simple.

Synergy numbers show the correlation well. On possessions that come after DeMarcus has secured offensive rebounds – situations which usually involve little more than a headfake and another rise to the basket for a second shot attempt – DeMarcus ranked 64th in the league, with 1.15 points per possession. In the post and in isolation plays, on the other hand, which require frustrating acts like decision making and dealing with defenders, he dropped to 0.73 and 0.76 PPP, with respective league-wide ranks of 146th and 160th.

While his post and isolation numbers seem eerily similar – indicating that the distance from which he starts his move has little effect on the end result – Synergy solves this mystery for us as well. DeMarcus turned the ball over 20% of the time in the post, and only 10.4% of the time when isolating. Watching the tape, one concludes that this is a direct result of his complete inability to deal with double teams, something that happens much more often when he’s posting up (which scares teams, to a degree) than when he’s attacking from the outside (which opponents welcome). If we look only at possessions in which DeMarcus gets a shot off, we find that he shoots 36.7% when isolating, and 41.4% when posting up. Both are horrid numbers – and seeing the sort of contested flippity shots DeMarcus takes in both situations, it’s easy to understand why – but it’s clear where he’s better.

DeMarcus’ shooting percentages by range also very clearly show where he excels and where he falters. At the rim, DeMarcus shot a strong 62.5%, despite being blocked on a startling 11% of his shot attempts. One has to assume that with a year of NBA experience under his belt, DeMarcus will be able to do a far superior job of using his considerable physical assets to avoid blocks and further extend his effectiveness under the rim.

Sadly, DeMarcus only took a third of his shots from the area in which he was most effective. Too many of his post moves ended in the 3-9 foot range, where most of his shots were either awkward fadeaways, highly contested, or both, resulting in a shooting percentage of 30.4%. When he wasn’t doing this, he was drifting out to the 16-23 foot “long two” range, taking 3.3 shots per game (slightly over a quarter of his total shots) from that range and making only 37%, although many of them were wide open. Synergy is again the perfect descriptor here, reminding us that DeMarcus scored only 0.67 PPP in possessions that were classified as “spot ups”, ranking an awful 339th in a 450 player league.

Defensively, DeMarcus is both strong and huge, which is quite the asset as far as post defense. While he isn’t an elite shot blocker, Cousins gets in good position to contest shots, allowing only 0.74 PPP and ranking 48th in the league in post defense. Synergy ranks Cousins even better at defending the pick and roll, ranking 11th (!) at stopping the roll man, though this may be skewed by how easily every single point guard facing the Kings could take Beno Udrih/Marcus Thornton off the dribble after the initial confusion a pick creates (and, if we’re honest, also without it). When asked to step out, though, DeMarcus effectiveness on defense evaporated, ranking a mediocre-plus 160th in closing out on spot ups, and a just plain mediocre 239th in isolations.

Of course, none of this matters if DeMarcus can’t stay on the court. Cousins registered a frightening 4.1 fouls every night, the offensive of which contributing to his mind-boggling turnover numbers (3.3 a game), and all of which contributing to his limited minutes (just 28.5 a night). If Cousins continues to award opponents extra possessions and free throws, he will continue to be a liability of sorts, even if the rest of his game rounds out.

This was a statistical break down of what DeMarcus can and can’t do on the basketball court. However, you probably knew all of this, give or take a few digits. The basketball court is not where DeMarcus’ issues lie, but inside his head. No matter how easy the fixes are – don’t shoot from outside, never take more than 2 dribbles on a post move, don’t fade away when you’re 3 feet from the basket, keep your head up so you can see the double coming, immediately pass out, and re-post – none of this matters if DeMarcus is too stubborn and/or oblivious to fix this.

Obviously, it’s impossible to predict a player’s willingness to work on the mental blocks to his game, especially when the player is as volatile and unique as DeMarcus. But in order to get a better idea of whether this is at all possible, I took to basketball reference’s extensive databases, and ran searches of 3 point era rookies listed 6’10” and higher who displayed similar statistical hindrances.

TS% of 50% or less on 5+ FGA per game

Of the 19 non-DeMarcus players that qualify, the most prominent wasted talents are without a doubt Eddie Griffin, whose rookie TS% was worse than DeMarcus’ by almost 3%, and the immortal Michael Olowakandi, who may not be a wasted talent as much as a complete lack of such. If we sift through career bit players like Alec Kessler, Tellis Frank and Brad Sellers, and ignore players who were already 23 years or more during their rookie seasons such as Clifford Robinson, Danny Ferry and Toni Kukoc, we’re left with very little to compare to. Dirk’s appearance on this list is exciting, but let’s not fool ourselves. Emeka Okafor improved his TS% considerably over his career, but was never asked to shoulder an offensive load such as DeMarcus was this year, let alone future projections. Troy Murphy is an especially scary comp here, because his game is built around the very perimeter tendencies we hope DeMarcus abandons.

Assuming Nowitzki-ness is unachievable, the best case scenarios here are probably be Kevin Willis, who got over a low-efficiency rookie year to become a middling-efficiency scorer over his NBA prime, and Tom Gugliotta, who peaked at 20 ppg and 56% true shooting for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1997-1998. However, this list shows that DeMarcus’ horrid shooting as a rookie was an extreme rarity for a big man of his talent, which should be a major concern.

Also, Vitaly Potapenko.

Turnover % of 15% or more with a usage rate of 20% or more

The idea here is to look only at big men who were, as rookies, already mainstays of their teams’ offense. This list is much more encouraging than the last one. The 22 names we see here include some of the greatest big men to play the game, and this is no coincidence: young big men turn the ball over a lot. That’s just part of the job.

However, even among these literal and figurative giants, DeMarcus ranks very high on this list. Only 4 rookie big men had higher turnover percentages than his 18.5, and none of them sported nearly as high a usage rate. In addition, of the 4, only Dikembe Mutombo became a full blown star, and it was hardly his offense who did the trick. Jeff Ruland and Steve Johnson did enjoy a single all-star appearance each, though, with solid if unimpressive peaks that stretched over short periods of time. So while history notes that DeMarcus’ turnover issues are conquerable, he has a longer way to go than most comparable youngsters.

Also, Vitaly Potapenko is, once again, Vitaly Potapenko.

4 personal fouls or more per 36 minutes

This is, understandably, by far the most comprehensive list. If there is one thing that young big men do more than turn the ball over, it’s foul. While Shaq and Duncan aren’t on this list any more, we do see a wide array of centers, ranging from all time greats to masters of irrelevancy. Foul issues either go away with age or do not, but it’s certainly doable. Once again, DeMarcus will be the one who determines which group he will ultimately be a part of. Other than the obligatory Vitaly Potapenko mention, I don’t think much can be gathered from here.

Assist % of 12% or more with a usage rate of 20% or more

We flip the turnover list for the assist list, and this is where DeMarcus stands out. Once we finish admiring just how special Blake Griffin’s rookie season was, we can see that among rookies, DeMarcus is one of the best high-usage passing big men of all time. When this comes with turnover struggles as severe as we’ve seen, this should be taken with a grain of salt, but it is still worth noting: DeMarcus’ vision is almost unparallelled. Even better, this is where DeMarcus finally separates himself from the menacing Potapenko shadow.

It’s easy to see that DeMarcus Cousins has a lot of work to do. He’s a unique player, with unique strengths and unique weaknesses. All of these will be rendered completely meaningless if DeMarcus does not decide on his own accord to steer his career in the right direction, or if other factors on the team get in the way of him doing so, especially since he has so much ground to make up. But despite the risks, the problems, and the frequent appearances next to Vitaly Potapenko, but the potential for salvation is absolutely there.


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