Monday, February 6, 2012

On DeMarcus Cousins - An Aggressive Extrapolation

I have wanted to become an unabashed DeMarcus Cousins fan since the first time I watched him play at Kentucky. Not since a young Chris Webber had a college big man’s potential for dominance intoxicated me to that extent. However, seemingly every superlative carried a “character caveat,” be it with regard to his maturity, hot-headedness, conditioning or coachability, because, y’know, we all had our shit together at 19. As someone whose post-Magic/pre-Kobe wagon was hitched to the ill-fated star of Isaiah Rider, I was understandably unforthcoming with my affection.

No more.

I’m watching the Sacramento Kings – more accurately DMC – a lot these days. And I see it happening. The flashes of greatness, increasingly growing into short stretches, in which brain catches up to body, producing basketball that compels one to slam a double shot of hyperbole and take to the streets.

It happens when he drives the baseline and attacks an opposing big’s chest – without drawing a foul. An under-control drive capped off with a layup, after a slick up-and-under. An elbow jumper so smooth you’d swear it originated from Pau Gasol. An off-balance (but once again under control) fadeaway from the wing. Plucking a steal out of the air with one of his giants paws as though snatching a gently tossed tennis ball. An uncanny knock for creating space for rebounds that few could have reached anyway.

At his best, Cousins evokes images of a smaller, in-shape Shaq. A more powerful Chris Webber. Tall Barkley. Moses Malone with a refined offensive game.

He still gets into foul trouble, and frustratingly attracts whistles in bunches. He remains turnover prone and must recommit to maximizing his considerable passing ability. And he will have to sustain his recent efforts, both physical and mental, to ascend to the ranks of the NBA’s elite. Not that he’s not off to a decent start already.

Thing is, he’s trying. DeMarcus Cousins is growing up, clearly making a conscious effort to control his emotions, while remaining an emotional player. This progress is a sign that the immaturity that’s plagued him is not only not a terminal condition, but with age and sufficient experience, could fade rather quickly into the rearview. Remember this guy?

It took a couple of years, but I have arrived, ready to take the plunge.

I am all in on DeMarcus Cousins.

Arguably as deserving as John Wall of having his name called first in 2010’s draft, Cousins saw his stock fall, as not only the Wizards, but the 76ers, Nets and Timberwolves all elected to go in different directions with the draft’s top picks. Wall and Ohio State’s Evan Turner were the consensus 1-2, but with the picks that followed, the Nets and Wolves, presumably concerned by Cousins’ character, passed on a superstar talent that had yet to celebrate his 20th birthday in favor of a more raw and less proven fellow freshman Derrick Favors and an almost-23 year-old wing lacking an elite NBA skill in Wes Johnson. Cousins probably dodged a Bullet in avoiding the Wizards (would you trust Gilbert Arenas, Nick Young and Andray Blatche to housesit for a weekend, let alone mentor a franchise big man?), but the Sixers, Nets and Wolves were clearly scared off by a reputation that had clearly preceded DMC to the NBA.

Based on the early returns, the reluctance to pin the hopes of an NBA franchise to Cousins’ prodigious-but-mercurial talent was justified. He provided glimpses of his incredible potential – 16 games of 20+ points, 29 of 10+ rebounds and 26 double-doubles, including 27-10 against the Lakers, 25-12 against the Hornets, 21-16 against the Grizz, all victories – and rebounded extremely well (10.5 Offensive Rebound Rate and 24.4 on the defensive glass), but struggled constantly with on-court (off the court he’s been fine) discipline, both in the flow of play (5.2 fouls per 36 minutes; fouled out 10 times and finished with five fouls on 27 occasions) and in his dealings with officials, drawing 14 technical fouls and earning a league-high three ejections.

When he did manage to stay on the floor, he was, on balance, kinda terrible – high usage (27.19), turnover prone (18.47% of the time), inaccurate from anything but point blank range (62.4% FG at the rim; no better than 37% from anywhere else) and prone to having his shot blocked (11.2% of the time, compared with the league average of 5.7%). Add it all up and you’ve got a seven-footer(ish) with a sub-50% True Shooting Percentage (48.4%), eFG of 43.2%, PER of 14.6and 2.64 Adjusted Win Shares –well below the league average (3.44) and outside the top-200.

This winter, though he reported to camp in excellent shape (270 lbs, down 22 from the draft), it looked as though little had changed. Seven games into the season, Cousins was averaging 13.7 points (on 39.8% FG) and 9.3 rebounds (an awesome 5.3 offensive though), had only made half of his shots once, three times had failed to connect on at least 30% and had fouled out three times. It was at this point (January 5 to be exact) that coach Paul Westphal – on the heels of releasing a statement aimed at publicly shaming Cousins for being either unwilling or unable to “travel in the same direction as the team” and alleging that Cousins had demanded to be traded – was shown the door.

In Westphal’s place stepped assistant coach Keith Smart, another former player, but one capable of relating to Cousins, while – thanks to his own experience with an authoritative coach – demanding accountability from his young star.

In 15 games since Smart assumed the reins Cousins has been excellent, averaging 15.2 points (on 47.6% FG, and 50%+ eight times) and 11.7 rebounds, with 3.9 per game on the offensive glass (including a ridiculous 12 in a January 18 win over the Pacers), with 11+ eight times, including three performances of at least 19 rebounds. As a result, among players that have appeared in 10+ games and averaging 10+ minutes per game, he ranks third in Offensive Rebound Rate (15.3%), fourth in Total Rebound Rate (20.9), and eighth in Defensive Rebound Rate (27).

Despite the early struggles with offensive efficiency, Cousins showed improvement right away at the defensive end. According to Synergy, and thanks to some excellent work from Sactown Royalty, his recent .68 PPP allowed ranked behind only Andrew Bynum, DeAndre Jordan, Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler. He is also one of just nine players (minimum 15 games played) currently averaging at least one steal (1.1) and one blocked shot (1.4) per game, with averages that compare favorably to Chandler’s 1.0/1.3. Of this group, only Kevin Durant (26.5), Dwight Howard (24.3), Dwyane Wade (23.5) and the aforementioned Tyson Chandler (20.3) have a higher PER than Cousins' 20.2.

Additionally, in his last 10 games, Cousins has taken better care of the ball than ever before (13.8 TO Rate, v. 15.2 for the season, and 18 for his career), while posting an improved Assist Rate (7.7, v. 5.2 for the season). However, this improved figure is still down dramatically from 14.13 a year ago, concerning given the magnitude of the drop, but likely to ultimately prove anomalous, given Cousins’ excellent touch and instincts as a passer. As always, foul trouble is a bugaboo for Boogie (5.3 per 36), though it’s worth noting that after committing 5+ fouls in seven of his first nine games (including that trio of DQ’s), Cousins has not fouled out in his last 10, picking up five fouls on four occasions, but remaining active, productive and, wait for it, focused, managing 13, 15, 19 and 20 rebounds in those games.

Since we’re here, let’s take a moment to reflect on Cousins’ performance Saturday night at Arco against the Golden State Warriors. For anyone bothering to commit it to memory, the contest will be remembered foremost as the first 20-point, 20-rebound game (he finished with 21 and 20) of DMC’s career – and rightfully so. But there is another, more significant takeaway from the impressive and entertaining, but otherwise meaningless overtime win.

Cousins got off to a strong start, taking 12 points, eight rebounds and just two personal fouls (this is most impressive, considering his first came 83 seconds into the game) into the locker room at halftime. After the break, he assumed a lesser role, recording just two points (with four rebounds), as Marcus Thornton exploded for 18 third quarter points, powering the Kings to a double-digit lead. During the stanza, Cousins, free of foul trouble and playing an accordingly relaxed game, doubled his tally, to which he added a fifth at the 9:37 mark of fourth quarter. With the Kings holding an eight-point lead, the idea of watching Cousins try to navigate the vital moments of a competitive game while toeing the DQ line was, in and of itself, enough to keep me riveted, but it soon became clear that there was yet another factor at play.

Warriors' coach Mark Jackson is a smart guy. During his playing days, he was as savvy a player as there was in the league. Allow me some leeway for speculation, but after watching Cousins calmly and efficiently abuse his front line in the first 24, I have little doubt that the strategic mind that just three weeks ago gave us Smack-a-Ho had another trick up its sleeve. As the second half unfolded it became clear that the Warriors’ front line had an agenda beyond simply trying to outplay Cousins – they were going to incite him.

Late in the third quarter, perhaps sensing a less-involved Cousins, on the wrong end of three whistles in eight minutes of game action (after feeling the sting just once in the first 22) might be on tilt, in a battle for position under the Kings’ rim, the hardly-combative David Lee, in front of an official, put both hands in Cousins’ chest and delivered a blatant shove that left Cousins on the floor.

(Oh shit, just limit the damage to just one T).

Nothing, huh? Interesting.

A few minutes later, Epke Udoh entered the fray, delivering a less egregious but no less focused shot. Another no call. At this point, outraged myself, I just hoped Cousins’ would escape his next encounter with the referees with nothing worse than what I'd have remembered as a justifiable ejection.

Clearly incredulous, on both occasions Cousins gathered himself and momentarily resisted having words with the nearest official before reconsidering and totally flying off the… wait, what?

That’s right! Before “having a brief, non-confrontational exchange with a referee, who actually listened, finger nowhere near the tech trigger.” It was one of the underrated highlights of the young season – an obviously angry DMC, focused on keeping his cool, and actually pulling it off, to the extent that he a) managed to avoid a sixth foul, b) actually appeared to get a favorable nod on a couple of close calls in the fourth quarter and OT and c) remained mentally engaged and effective, if a bit less aggressive on defense.

Am I, in my newfound excitement to board the Boogie Bandwagon, reading more into an early February tilt between Northern California's lottery-bound brethren? Is this merely a moment, a microcosm of DeMarcus Cousins' ongoing maturation?

It’s impossible to say, but given what I’m seeing, what I hope to see going forward and what Keith Smart has seen since taking over:

"He's making big-time steps--the steps the franchise wants him to make at this age in his second year. He's on a great pace right now of doing the things I want, doing the things the team need him to do: Good energy, being a passer and decision-maker, rebounding, getting in better shape. Across the board, he's doing everything. He's showing he can play a little bit longer. He's on track."

I’m buying it.

I am down with Boogie.


Anonymous said...

There will be alot more on the "Boogie Bandwagon". I have been from day one!

Anonymous said...

I've been on the boogie bandwagon from day one also and to see his improvement and focus makes me proud of my Kings and the direction they are going. I've been so impressed that I had a nightmare recently of DMC slipping back to his old ways and doing something so bad it made me cry. He killed my fish during the dream but the point is I'm invested in him and his contributions to Sacramento's ball club.

Anonymous said...

He's like Rasheed Wallace in terms of temperament. If he adds an outside touch, he will be Rasheed Wallace 2.0. He's a better rebounder too.