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NBA Saturday: DeMarcus Cousins Continues to Mature

Through the early part of the season, DeMarcus Cousins is showing added maturity and a dominant all-around game.

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With DeMarcus Cousins, talent has never been the issue.  At 6’11, 270 lbs., Cousins can back down opponents in the post the way Shaquille O’Neal used to, but is also nimble enough to take opponents off the dribble the way Tim Duncan does (with remarkable success).

The issue for Cousins has always been about maturity.  On January 1, 2012, former Sacramento Kings head coach Paul Westphal sent Cousins home before playing against the then-New Orleans Hornets because of an ongoing rift between the player and coach.

“…he (Cousins) is unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team, it cannot be ignored indefinitely,”  Westphal said in an official statement.  “DeMarcus Cousins has demanded to be traded.  In the best interest of our team as we go forward, he has been directed by me, with the support of management, to stay home from the New Orleans game tonight.”

On January 5, 2012, the Kings fired Westphal, and Cousins eventually denied ever demanding a trade and dismissed the notion that he had anything to do with Westphal losing his job.

After this incident, Cousins just kept finding ways to get in trouble.  In November 2012, Cousins was suspended by the league for getting into a “hostile” altercation with former player and San Antonio Spurs broadcaster Sean Elliot, who criticized Cousins for “talking and flapping his guns” against Duncan during a game.  Then in December 2012, Cousins was suspended by the league for one game after punching O.J. Mayo in the groin, and then later suspended by the Kings for getting into a verbal altercation with former Kings head coach Keith Smart during halftime of a game against the Los Angeles Clippers.  Cousins was also suspended by the league in February of 2013 for punching Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley in the stomach during a game.

For all of the mistakes Cousins has made in the past (the examples above represent just a few of the more notable incidents), he seems to have turned over a new leaf this season, and is carrying himself with more control and maturity on the court.  Before the season started, Cousins set a personal goal to only get at most five technical fouls throughout this season.

In a game against the Phoenix Suns, Cousins was called for his sixth foul after setting what appeared to be a legal screen on Marcus Morris.  Kings head coach Mike Malone was livid, and Cousins eventually grabbed him and took him back to the bench to prevent his coach from getting a technical foul at a critical juncture of the game.  Then, on Thursday against the Chicago Bulls, Kirk Hinrich got tangled up with Cousins and looked as though he was trying to instigate a response to draw a technical foul on the Kings center.  Cousins didn’t respond and instead Hinrich was called for a technical foul, something that almost certainly would not have happened last season.

Unfortunately for Cousins, NBA officials (understandably) keep him on a short leash and are sometimes quick to call a technical foul on him.  He got flagged for his first technical foul of the season against the Memphis Grizzlies for walking to the bench in displeasure after being called for a foul.  The NBA later rescinded the technical, acknowledging that Cousins response did not warrant the call*.

*Note: Cousins has one official technical foul on the season stemming from a game against the San Antonio Spurs.

Cousins recently spoke with Rebecca Haarlow of NBATV to discuss his maturity issues and the Kings’ early season success.  When asked where he has grown the most, Cousins talked only about the mental aspects of the game.

“With my mindset, how I approach the game, how I approach like every day coming in,” said Cousins.  “It’s a lot different from two, three years ago.  I’ve grown wiser.  I’m older now.  I understand the game better.  I believe it’s all starting to transition to my game.”

A big part of that new approach stems from Cousins’ time with the USA National team this summer, which won gold at the FIBA World Cup Tournament in Spain.

“It (playing in the FIBA tournament) helped out a lot,” said Cousins.  “I’d say the biggest thing is learning how to sacrifice for your team.  Doing the small things to help the team.  That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve taken away.  I mean, I played with an incredible group of guys, a very talented group of guys.  So, me playing the way I usually play, it wasn’t really needed for the team.  So just learning how to do the small things, and also learning how it feels to be that guy in that position, so that way when I come back to my team, those guys that are in that position, I appreciate them a lot more.”

Other players around the league are taking notice of Cousins’ growth.  After beating the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night, Joakim Noah, another passionate and at times antagonistic player, praised the talented center.

“They’re a good team,” Noah told ESPNChicago.com. “They’re a very good team.  They play hard at home. I think that they’re starting to build something over here.  Defensively they’re better.  DeMarcus is a lot better. He’s playing more efficiently … Sometimes he gets frustrated and that works in our favor.  But I feel like this year he’s the one getting guys frustrated, and it’s worked for them, so we’ll see them again.”

“We’ll see them again at home and we’ll be ready for that one, but you can tell there’s been a lot of growing on his side as a player.”

Cousins has developed his game on the court as well since last season.  Last season, per 36 minutes, Cousins averaged 25.3 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.  This season, per 36 minutes, Cousins is averaging 26.3 points, 13.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.7 blocks per game.  He has also improved his shooting efficiency, improving from a 55.5 true shooting percentage last season, to 57 percent this season.  Cousins’ numbers would be even better if he could stay on the court longer, but he is unfortunately tallying 5.6 fouls per 36 minutes (up from 4.2 last season).  This is in part explained by his active hands on defense and eagerness to strip the ball from opponents.

In fact, for all of the praise that Cousins is receiving for his offensive improvements, it is his defensive effort that is having the most impact for the Kings.  Cousins has been an average defender through the first few years of his career, but this season he is putting in more attention to playing team defense.  Opponents are attempting 8.4 shots at the rim per game against Cousins, and he is holding them to just 43.6 percent, while blocking 1.4 shots per game.  Those numbers are in line with Serge Ibaka’s, who is considered to be one of the elite rim protectors in the game (Ibaka is holding opponents to just 42.9 percent at the rim on 8.5 attempts per game, while blocking 1.7 shots).  This improved commitment to defense is reflected in the Kings’ defensive efficiency numbers.  When Cousins is on the court, the Kings are holding opponents to 98.4 points per 100 possession.  When Cousins is off the court, opposing teams are scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions.

Cousins’ overall improvement has helped the Kings get off to a surprising 7-5 start, with quality wins over teams like the Trail Blazers, Clippers, Suns, Spurs and Bulls.  There are other factors contributing to the Kings’ hot start, like the efficient play of Rudy Gay, the effectiveness of Darren Collison as the starting point guard and the improved cohesion that comes with another season under Malone.  But it is clear that the biggest difference maker for this team is Cousins, which is why it is so important that he has, at least for now, kept his temper in check.

So does this mean that the Kings are going to break the eight-year drought in Sacramento and make it to the playoffs?  Cousins wasn’t ready to make that proclamation yet, but he is appropriately optimistic.

“I think a lot of people got a little too excited about the 5-1 start,” Cousins told Haarlow.   “We’re a still a team that’s growing every day.  We’re still a young team.  We haven’t been together that long.  We’re still learning one another.  We’re still building that chemistry.  And us being in that situation, us being a new team, that’s something we weren’t used to.  So it’s just about learning to handle those situations.”

“If we continue on the path that we’re on now, if we continue to grow every day, continue to get better every day, I do believe we’re a playoff team.”

The Kings may not make it to the playoffs this season, which is understandable in the stacked Western Conference, but at least now the Kings have a franchise big man that is finally taking control of his emotions and dominating opponents on a nightly basis.

Westbrook and Durant Making Progress

Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman reports that the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are each making progress on their return from injury.  Both Durant and Westbrook worked out at Friday’s shoot-around, and have each been working out for the past couple of days.

Coach Scott Brooks also stated that both players will participate in parts of Sunday’s practice.

This is great news for a Thunder team that is struggling mightily without its two superstars.  The Thunder are now ranked last in the Western Conference at 3-11, and have lost five games in a row.

Slater reports that Westbrook may return by the end of next week.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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