CLEVELAND — DeMarcus Cousins is standing near his locker in the visitors’ dressing room, dancing and playfully yelling at teammates scattered across the room.
“Hey, stop singing in the shower, man,” Cousins says, to no avail.
It’s as if he’s making noise just for the sake of it. Since no one is actually responding, it’s fairly evident the third-year center hasn’t quite emerged as the Sacramento Kings’ obvious leader. He’s merely their best player.
The Kings are coming off a 97-94 win at Cleveland, just their second on the road in 15 tries. So excuse them if the celebration seems a bit excessive.
More impressive than that, however, is the fact they’re 3-1 since Cousins returned from a one-game suspension, handed down by his very own team. The crime: Getting into a heated exchange with coach Keith Smart during halftime of a game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Those who watch Cousins closely say he’s been at his very best since returning. Like, the best stretch of his career.
It’s hard to argue — as the 6-foot-10 throwback big man is doing more than averaging 16.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists over the previous four games. He’s evolved into a manageable personality and admirable teammate.
Until recently, that was a trouble spot for Cousins. He’s not necessarily a selfish guy. But he sure can come across as greedy on the court.
Obviously, the suspension may not have had anything to do with his newfound approach. It could be a complete coincidence.
All the Kings really know is they like it. All they really know is it makes both Cousins and the Kings better.
“I hope I don’t have to go through all that again to get him to this point,” Smart says, smiling. “We all know that’s the only thing that’s missing from his game — to allow his teammates to play with him.”
Even without a share-the-rock mentality, Cousins is a darn fine talent, a true center with good size, natural athleticism and basketball brains. He puts his back to the basket, he plays hard, he compiles impressive numbers.
Most people will tell you that the L.A. Lakers’ Dwight Howard and Philadelphia’s Andrew Bynum (when healthy) are the game’s two best centers. Cousins is likely third. And at just 22-years old, he is definitely the youngest.
But he’s also the one with the most baggage. Entirely accurate or not, that’s his reputation. That says a lot, when you consider how relentlessly Howard was ripped for how he handled his business in Orlando.
Cousins’ unpredictable past and recent flare-up have led to an overabundance of Internet trade scenarios. Some dreamers have dispatched him everywhere from Boston to Orlando to Charlotte to Detroit to cities between and beyond. Cousins is a problem child who’s not worth the trouble, fans and columnists proclaim.
Yet everyone seems to want him.
King of the moment
Sacramento general manager Geoff Petrie tried to diffuse the rumors by telling NBA.com that Cousins is not available. Smart echoed those sentiments Wednesday in Cleveland.
“We’ve got a talented young player who’s 22,” Smart says. “You don’t just put that on the curbside.”
Cousins hears the talk and is well aware of how the gossip gets started. Despite what most folks seem to think, he’s proving mature enough to shut it out and make amendments.
“I keep saying that when I share the ball, we’re hard to beat,” he says, addressing his recent affinity for finding the open man. “So if I gotta take away from my game and get everyone else going and in the spirit of sharing the ball, I’ll do that.”
Cousins admits that passing is something “I kind of went away from” both last season and the early parts of this one. So why the sudden shift in focus?
“I want to win games, man,” he says, looking down and putting on a sock. “If it means shooting less, then that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Where from here?
The Kings enter the weekend with a record of 12-20. It’s hardly the type of mark that has the national media, or even local die-hards, forecasting a playoff push.
Still, Cousins alone makes the Kings fairly relevant, and the trade chatter is, at the very least, putting them in the news.
Aside from those things, talk surrounding this team often centers around whether it will continue to play home games in Sacramento, whether Petrie will return for a 20th year, whether Smart will last the season.
On the floor, other than Cousins, the hot topics include fourth-year swingman Tyreke Evans, second-year point guard Isaiah Thomas, and even second-year combo guard Jimmer Fredette.
Evans, the 2010 Rookie of the Year, is still viewed as someone with star potential. Everyone else is pretty much thought of as uneven.
Smart, forever realistic and easygoing, understands this is the hand he’s been dealt and coaches accordingly.
“I don’t have the luxury of having a team that’s a big-time playoff team or one with stars who are already in place,” he says. “We’re in a developmental stage of trying to get these guys to be consistent winners.”
Without a doubt, much of that depends on Cousins becoming the player, and mostly, the man, the Kings believe he can become.
“When he plays well the entire team plays well,” Fredette says. “We feed off his energy, his ability to score and rebound the ball, and all the attention he demands.”
As Smart and Cousins have indicated, Cousins seems ready to grasp the concept that he can use all that attention to make everyone else, and therefore himself, even better.
Perhaps now, the Kings can receive the highest honor awarded to playoff non-qualifiers. Perhaps now, they can be called a young team in the rise.
Clearly, most of it depends on Cousins.
“We just have to let the young man mature,” Smart says. “I just got him sitting in a cave somewhere, just him sitting in there and maturing. Because we all know when that does happen, and we get an opportunity to pop that cork, he’s going to be a pretty special player in this league.”
When that happens, Cousins will be doing more than just making noise for the sake of it. Then, it will really mean something.