Tough Love Paying Off.

Photo by Steven Chea.

Negative attention follows DeMarcus Cousins like a giant rain cloud ready to burst.   Questions about his maturity, questions about his physique and questions about his potential for disaster caused one of the most offensively gifted big men the NBA has seen in years, to slide down the draft board to the Sacramento Kings at pick number five.  32 games into his rookie season, the Kings have dealt with the difficult side of the 20-year-old Cousins one day at a time.  His list of issues are documented here, here and here, but what has not been documented is the growth of a talent both on and off the court.

Skeptics will point to the negative and say, “we told you so.”  I prefer to point to the last four games and respond with this – the Kings knew what they were getting into, and with a player like Cousins, the end result is all that will matter.

Small sample sizes are all we have of DeMarcus Cousins.  As I sit down to write this piece, I am reminded that 32 games is not enough to make any judgment on a player’s future, but it is the exact number of college games that Cousins played at the University of Kentucky.  Those 32 games were enough to show NBA executives that Cousins was worthy of a top five pick.  32 games was also enough to scare away the four teams drafting in front of the Kings.

If 32 games is a sample size, why not make it four games or even four quarters because DeMarcus Cousins is beginning to show growth in those types of samples.  Following Tuesday’s loss to the Hawks, Cousins had this to say in the Kings locker room:

I believe I became a better professional today.  Playing through adversity in the first half and then coming out and trying to finish strong, I believe I grew today.

Photo by Steven Chea.

Is it enough to look at one half where Cousins went 2-8 from the field, scored four points and grabbed two rebounds in 15 minutes of play and compare it to the next half?  If so, Cousins is correct, he figured out a way during half time to make adjustments and come out a better player.  In the second half, Cousins scored 20 points on 9-14 shooting and grabbed five rebounds in 21 minutes against the same front line that stymied him in the first half.

I asked the rookie big man about what he believes is the cause for improvement in his game:

I’m just trying to key in more on the small things.  Just staying positive.  Sometimes things don’t happen the way you want them to, but you have to just keep going at it and come back and make plays.

Coach Paul Westphal, whose career with the Kings has been called into question heavily over the last month, is the man charged with molding the Kings’ young center.  To say the road has been easy for the tandem would be a lie.  Following the Kings’ December 21st overtime loss to the Warriors, Westphal took away Cousins’ starting position indefinitely for giving the choke sign after a missed Warriors’ free throw late in the game.  The benching lasted three games, but the message has been clear and consistent- grow up big fella and make it quick.

I had a chance to ask DeMarcus about the tough love approach by Coach Westphal and whether or not he thinks it is working:

Yeah, I do.  Whenever you go through hard times, you should try your best to learn from it, even if you are right or if you are wrong.  Just try to learn from it and that’s what I’m trying to do.

Two days after the loss to the Warriors, the Kings fell to the Milwaukee Bucks, and Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported that the Kings were poised to fire both Westphal and long time General Manager Geoff Petrie.  Berger updated the post to include a vote of confidence for the tandem by Co-Owner Joe Maloof, but the initial report was that the move was imminent.

Since then, the Kings have begun anew, using the Christmas break to clear the air and hit the reset button.  With the fresh start, some success has followed for both the team and DeMarcus Cousins.

Coach Westphal  had this to say about his young center’s progress following the team meetings around the holidays:

I think DeMarcus is interested in becoming a really good NBA pro.  He gets frustrated when things don’t go that way quickly every minute.  The last three or four games, whatever it is, he’s giving himself a taste of what it’s like to push through and show the type of player he can be in this league.

Photo by Steven Chea.

In the four game stretch Coach Westphal is speaking of (again with the small sample size issue) DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 22.3 points (54.4% shooting), 9.7 rebounds, three assists and 1.5 steals a game in a nearly 34 minutes.

An impressive four game stretch for sure, but hidden in these four games are two specific developments.  First up, two wins by the Kings.  After losing 22 of 24 prior to the break, the Kings have shown a new ability to close out games late.  Secondly, Cousins has shown an uncanny ability to improve as the game has progressed.  Cousins has an idea why his game is advancing:

I think my focus is a lot better.  I’m not letting the distractions of the referees or bad plays on my part determine the rest of my game.  I used to make a bad play and keep it in my head.  Now I let it go and move on to the next play or move on to the next play.

With the wins, the excitement within the Kings’ fan base has also been resurrected and Cousins is a big reason for that.  Cousins is animated and lives on an emotional edge.  When things are going bad, things can really snowball, but when things are going good, he is a magnet for the fans and Coach Westphal agrees:

He is a lovable personality and everybody roots for someone who overtly cares, and DeMarcus has that going for him in a big way.  You never want to take that away from him.

Photo by Steven Chea.

Dealing with an emotional player is nothing new for Coach Westphal.  When he was in Phoenix, he had to contend with the great Charles Barkley.  In Seattle, Gary Payton was his starting point guard.  The biggest difference is that both of these players were veterans by the time Westphal got them as players.  With Cousins, there has to be a foundation laid by the coaching staff and more specifically, Coach Westphal:

Really, the only weapon a coach has is to try and be consistent and have things tied to playing time that are important for him to learn.  I really feel he appreciates that and someday, he’ll really appreciate it.

Coach Westphal doesn’t consider this youthful enthusiasm that exudes from Cousins as a detriment.  In fact, he prefers it to some of the alternatives:

It’s a lot easier to tone somebody down who is passionate than it is to light a fire under somebody who doesn’t particularly care if they are there or not. The great thing about DeMarcus is, you don’t have to push him, he cares.  He wants to be a great player and you can see that in everything he does.  Sometimes you can see it a little too much and those are the things he has to learn how to temper but that passion is something the fans identify with and it’s what makes this game fun.

Cousins is a work-in-progress and at times a complete handful for the Kings’ coaches.  Where his career path lies is still uncertain, but these early experiences under Coach Westphal’s guidance will go a long way toward establishing a foundation strong enough to help Cousins reach his ultimate goals.  Those goals are lofty.  Attainable, but lofty for a talent of his magnitude.  For now, DeMarcus Cousins will have to learn his lessons the hard way, one gray hair on Coach Westphal’s head at a time.

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About: James Ham

James Ham provides coverage through news analysis and in-depth interviews with Kings players and staff. James is also one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart". James graduated UC Davis with a degree in history and is happily married with two children.