In a Western Conference overstocked with rising phenoms and future first-ballot Hall of Famers, DeMarcus Cousins has cemented his name atop the All-Star candidates list, ready to join the League’s brightest standouts beneath the enchanting lights of New York City and pinwheel ceiling of the legendary Madison Square Garden.
“I think (he’s an All-Star) – he’s big, he’s physical, he’s strong, he can pass, he can score (over) both shoulders,” says Dallas Mavericks All-Star and 2007 NBA MVP Dirk Nowitzki. “He’s as big and as physical as there is in the League.”
“There’s no question (Cousins) has played like (an All-Star),” says Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Stan Van Gundy. “How many guys at his position have played better? Very, very, very few – if any.”
Despite being sidelined for 10 games (viral meningitis), the Kentucky product has earned glowing endorsements from countless NBA peers, opposing coaches and national broadcasters by not only improving upon his gaudy offensive output and mending his previous defensive shortcomings, but guiding the upstart Kings to a 14-13 record in his 27 starts and only 5.5 games out of a postseason berth.
“You can tell he’s just learning more and more every single year,” says Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star and reigning League MVP Kevin Durant. “(He’s) somebody I got to know over the last few years, and he’s worked extremely hard. A lot of people have some unfair criticism of him as a person, but that doesn’t discredit what he does on the court … I think he’s a guy who’s grown, learned how to play, learned how to win and learned how to sacrifice. He’s been a leader here in Sacramento, and it’s pretty fun to see.”
On the heels of a summer in which he earned a gold medal as a valuable member of the USA Basketball World Cup Team – seizing the opportunity by averaging 9.8 points on 70.8 percent from the field and 5.7 rebounds in 13.9 minutes of action – Cousins entered training camp in the best shape of his career, ready to embrace more responsibility on both ends of the court.
“He’s gotten a lot better. One thing that was talked about was his attitude, and his attitude has gotten a lot better,” says Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden. “Obviously, he’s scoring the basketball, he’s rebounding the basketball, his team is winning games and he’s grown as a leader. I think this summer really helped him out.”
“He’s a great young player who’s really establishing himself now as a guy who’s not only high level, but becoming very consistent,” says Dallas Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle. “His experience with USA Basketball was a real important part of that, from where I viewed it. He’s a competitive guy and he’s gotten better each year.
Despite Carlisle’s pre-game vow to “throw the kitchen sink” in an attempt to slow down the Kings center on Tuesday, Cousins narrowly missed notching his second career triple-double with 32 points, 16 rebounds and a season-high nine assists against Dallas.
“If you look at his numbers against us, he’s more than an All-Star – he’s all-universe.”
By any statistical measure, the Kings center reigns among the game’s elite, ranking second in the League in Player Impact Estimate (19.3) according to NBA.com/Stats and fourth in Player Efficiency Rating (26.9) per basketball-reference.com, as well as in the top-three in both points (24.2 per game) and rebounds (12.4). Racking up a double-double in all but six contests, Cousins is only one off the League lead, while also placing second in defensive rebound percentage (30.7) and sixth in total rebound percentage (21.5).
Stuffing the box score at a nearly unprecedented rate, Cousins is the only player in the League currently averaging over 24 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal per contest. According to basketball-reference.com, only six players in NBA history have ever matched No. 15’s incredible stat-line – a list headlined by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, as well as 15-time All-Star Kevin Garnett.
“To me, he’s an old-type power forward playing (center) – a Maurice Lucas-type of guy (or) Karl Malone,” says Brooklyn Nets Head Coach Lionel Hollins. “They play around the basket, but they also can come out and make jumpshots … (DeMarcus) can offensive rebound, he can pass the ball – he has a really good skill level.”
One of the game’s most dominant low-post scorers, the Mobile, Ala. native has forced hapless opponents into committing fouls to prevent him from scoring easy baskets, averaging 9.3 free throw attempts per 36 minutes – behind only Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (10.7) among players who’ve logged at least 500 minutes – and knocking down a career-best 80.6 percent from the charity stripe.
“If he’s not an All-Star, they really should not play the game,” says Kings TV Color Commentator Jerry Reynolds. “I think he’s the best center in the League right now, and I don’t think there’s any doubt. When you look at the total package – playing with his back to the basket, (in the) high post, rebounding, passing, spot-shooting – he’s been terrific. I know this, too – I haven’t seen anybody who can guard him yet.”
“Offensively, he can still hang out on the mid-range, he can still hit jumpers, and still pass from the elbow,” says Zach Lowe of Grantland.com. “But he really refocused his game to the low post, where he’s the most unguardable low-post player since Shaq.”
On Nov. 5, Cousins became the first player to notch 30 points and 11 rebounds in less than 22 minutes of court time since Hall of Famer Moses Malone nearly 28 years ago, and earned his second career Western Conference Player of the Week Award on Nov. 24 after guiding the Kings to a 2-1 record.
“You look at his overall play against all the competition he competes against every night, he certainly stands out as being able to compete with anybody at his position – and exceed it most nights,” says Kings Head Coach Ty Corbin. “I think he’s one of the best big guys and might be the best big guy in the League.”
The Sacramento draftee submitted one of his most impressive all-around performances of the season on Dec. 27, notching a season-high 39 points, 11 rebounds and four assists while carrying the team to an overtime victory over N.Y.
“He’s gotten so much better and I think he’s matured a lot, too, which helps him,” says Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons, who played alongside Cousins during USA Basketball training camp and exhibition contests. “He’s a load down low, he’s skilled, he can pass, he can knock down shots, he goes to the offensive glass (and he’s) relentless. He’s one of the best (centers) in the entire League.”
The rising star possesses not only the powerful inside game of a traditional center, but the range and craftiness of a small forward combined with the court vision and passing acumen of an adept floor general.
By drawing consistent double-teams, Cousins has opened up the floor for his teammates, allowing wing players to spot up for uncontested long-range looks, as well as get easy buckets at the rim off quick cuts and long outlet passes. Continuously looking for the open man with crisp, cross-court passes, the crafty big man ranks second among centers (min. 100 minutes played) in assist percentage (18.7), according to NBA.com/Stats, recording at least five dishes in eight games.
“Teams want to double- and triple-team DeMarcus all the time, but I told him, ‘Let them double- and triple-team all night,’” former Kings center Brad Miller – who finished his career seventh in assists (1,542) in the Sacramento era – recently told The Sacramento Bee. “He’s going to throw passes and find cutters out of it, which is different from last year and is a real sign of growth.”
Unsurprisingly, the Kings have been a remarkably more effective team on both ends of the court with Cousins in the lineup this season, outscoring opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions while allowing 100.0 points per 100 possessions with No. 15 manning the middle, according to NBA.com/Stats. Conversely, with the fifth-year center on the bench, Sacramento has been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions, giving up a substantially-higher 110.6.
According to ESPN.com, Cousins ranks fifth in defensive real plus-minus (4.03) and second among all centers, behind only Warriors big man Andrew Bogut.
“I think (DeMarcus) has had an unbelievable season,” says Houston Rockets three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. “I like what he’s doing on the offensive end, but his defense has really stepped up – especially the pick-and-roll defense. I think he’s really elevated his game, and I can’t wait to see him down the line.”
Developing into a plus individual defender, Cousins has held opponents to 51.9 percent from the field within six feet of the basket – 7.4 percent below their cumulative average – according http://www.nba.com/Stats, as well as utilized his guile and quick footwork to draw a League-high 19 charges, via hoopsmanifesto.com.
“He’s smart, plays good defense in space (and provides) good rim protection – not because he can jump really high, (but because) he moves his feet well and he understands player tendencies,” says Lowe, noting Cousins may still be feeling the after-effects of his illness. “He just moves his feet really well – he keeps point guards guessing when they come into his space.”
While his exceptional stats are up nearly across the board, No. 15 is also on pace to set a career low in one category, recording only four technical fouls this season – tied for 18th in the League – after being whistled for an NBA-high-tying 16 in 2013-14.
“His growth is like night and day,” says Kings teammate Reggie Evans, who’s served as the big man’s veteran mentor. “I let him know, ‘(You’re) getting older, you have a lot of people who look up to you, (you’re) a franchise player and there’s a certain title you have to behold when you have that type of label.’”
For a pair of longtime broadcasters who’ve covered the NBA for over two decades, Cousins has done a marvelous job of blending his immense talent and passion for the game with exemplary leadership, poise and self-accountability, making him a worthy All-Star selection.
“I know what he has to battle is reputation … but when you look at his performance night after night, the numbers are pretty astounding, and you just can’t ignore it,” says Kings Radio Broadcaster Gary Gerould. “So I think his time has come, and I think (fans and coaches) around the League are going to say, ‘He’s stepped up, he’s doing the job and he’s deserving.’
“He’s been terrific all year. He’s a smart player, he’s giving great effort at both ends of the court and I think his leadership has grown tremendously,” affirms TNT NBA Insider David Aldridge. “He’s just been too good – you can’t make a case to not put him on the (All-Star) team.”