How Could Making Team USA Affect the Career Trajectory of DeMarcus Cousins?
DeMarcus Cousins is reportedly working his tail off to make the cut for Team USA and play in the upcoming FIBA World Cup in Spain. For a player that is so rawly talented but has had the word “apathetic” used to describe his approach to basketball more than once in the past, these showings of enthusiasm and commitment are a welcome sign.
Boogie’s relationship with USA Basketball has been strained at best over the last few years, as his well-documented attitude and maturity issues have been a glaringly bad fit with the program. This time around, however, everyone from the USA Basketball mini camp is beaming about his work ethic and improved temperament. Progress on that front should certainly help his chances of making the team, but it could also bode incredibly well for his development as a basketball player in general.
Cousins, a 6’11”, 270-pound beast, has exuded upside since his lone season as a Kentucky Wildcat, but has been mired in controversy more often than not in his four seasons with the Sacramento Kings. He's led the Association in both personal and technical fouls at various points in his young career, and has served several suspensions at the hands of both the league and his own team for run-ins with various players, coaches, and even TV analysts.
Amidst all those distractions, though, he's still managed to develop into one of the best big men in the game. While questions about his erratic behavior are still plentiful, those about whether or not he can play at an All-Star level are fading rather fast. Statistically speaking, signs of his upward trajectory are undeniable, regardless of your metric of choice - whether it be true shooting percentage (TS%), player efficiency rating (PER), win shares (WS), or our own nERD score, the story is the same.
Last season, Cousins posted career highs in all of the above categories, as well as in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game and field goal percentage. What he was able to accomplish in just his fourth season at the young age of 23 defied the majority of expectations. Most of the attention paid to him might still go to his comportment, but his complete stat line from last season draws a very favorable comparison that we should maybe start taking a bit more seriously.
That’s right, DeMarcus Cousins’ statistical profile at age 23 is almost identical to what Kevin Garnett posted at the same age (and he did it in nearly 8 fewer minutes per game). Sure, Boogie’s appetite and defensive abilities are nowhere close to KG’s, but we’re still establishing a very high ceiling for the kid. In fact, only five players have ever managed to average over 22 points, 11 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block per game while shooting over 49% from the floor at age 23. Apart from Boogie and KG, the list is rounded out by Bob McAdoo, Charles Barkley, and Hakeem Olajuwon. That’s it. Three Hall of Famers, one sure-fire entry in KG, and Boogie Cousins.
Of course, making any claims on DMC’s Hall of Fame chances is putting the cart miles ahead of the horse, but it’s important to realize just how good this guy could be if you can look past his off-court shenanigans. Early knocks on Cousins were about his excessive fouling and poor shot selection, but after raising his field goal percentage (largely as a result of taking more shots closer to the rim) and lowering his foul rate per 36 minutes in each of his four seasons, it’s no trouble to see measured progress being made in those areas.
Now, his biggest need for improvement (outside of continuing to mature, of course) is on the defensive end. The 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game are nice and all, but those numbers only go so far in the process of assessing a big guy’s defensive prowess. Boogie’s rim protecting skills are adequate, but he’ll need to make a leap if he wants to be included in discussions with Dwight Howard or up-and-coming bigs (and fellow Team USA hopefuls) Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond as the best center in the game. Cousins held opponents to 51.1% on 7.5 shots at the rim last season, which placed him only 17th among the 30 players that faced 7.0 or more attempts. His offensive game already makes him great, but improved defense could make him transcendent and cement him as an All-Star for years to come.
Making Team USA would give Cousins and excellent opportunity to grow as a player and change his narrative from being considered a head-case to a star. He hasn’t been in a winning situation since his days at the University of Kentucky (the Kings haven’t hit 30 wins once in his four-year tenure) and getting a taste of that at the World Cup has the potential to awaken something in the still incredibly young prodigy.
Making the team would likely mean taking a backseat to a 20-year-old Anthony Davis (the projected starter in the middle by most accounts), but that dose of humility could be just what the doctor ordered for Cousins. He’ll likely be called on as a big body to throw at Spain’s troublesome frontcourt trio of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, and Serge Ibaka should the two teams meet in the tournament, and will be needed much more for his size than his established ability on the offensive end (something the team is already oozing with).
To be effective, he’ll have to throw his weight around, while limiting fouls of both the personal and technical variety at all costs. Whistles in international ball blow more freely than those in the NBA and the American squad is mighty thin upfront after the trio of LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Love bowed out of consideration for various reasons. DMC might be given the opportunity to play the role of hero – something he’s certainly not accustomed to - if Davis gets in foul trouble or proves not to be big enough.
If Cousins can keep his head in the game this summer, thrive as a role player with Team USA, and take the lessons he has the opportunity to learn in Spain back to Sacramento next season to build on a strong 2013-14 campaign, there will be plenty of reasons for the NBA to fear the Boogie Man for years to come.