Forever Linked

Certain players become forever linked by happenstance. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird represent the ultimate example or two people whose paths likely would never have crossed if not for the fact they both happened to be pretty good basketball players who took wildly divergent paths to college basketball’s ultimate game. After elevating that sport to popularity it had never imagined, they pushed the NBA several rungs up the ladder of national relevance.

Greg Monroe and DeMarcus Cousins, at least for the foreseeable future, are going to be measured against the other similarly. Which one can emerge as an elite NBA big man? Who’ll turn his lottery team into a playoff contender first?

That’s the subplot for tonight’s Pistons-Sacramento Kings game: second-year centers drafted two spots apart in the 2010 lottery and putting up strikingly similar numbers in points and rebounds.

Monroe averages 16.6 points and 9.7 rebounds for the Pistons, Cousins 16.3 points and 11.3 rebounds for the Kings. Monroe scores more efficiently, shooting .529 from the field and .821 from the line to Cousins’ .446 and .735. Both have been turnover prone this season, Monroe averaging 2.9 and Cousins 2.75; Monroe, however, nearly atones fully by dishing out 2.4 assists per game while Cousins, who is at least reputed for above-average passing skills, averages 0.9 assists.

The Pistons, after winning four of their final six games of the 2009-10 season and then losing a tiebreaker with Philadelphia, wound up picking seventh in the lottery, two spots after Sacramento. Joe Dumars admitted after the draft that the Pistons had three big men lumped in a group atop their draft board: Derrick Favors, who went No. 3 to New Jersey and was the key piece in last winter’s trade that sent Deron Williams from Utah to the Nets, in addition to Cousins and Monroe.

The Pistons, of course, are delighted with Monroe. Lawrence Frank is cautious in his praise of young players – he quickly pushed back when more than one reporter earlier this week intimated comparisons to Tim Duncan prior to Tuesday’s game with San Antonio – but he talked last week of Monroe’s potential.

“He’s committed. He wants to be a really special player,” Frank said. “Yet the thing that’s amazing is unbelievable upside and growth. He literally is just scratching it. There’s so much more to come.”

The Pistons attempted to trade up to No. 4 (Minnesota’s slot) or 5 with Cousins or Monroe in mind and brought Cousins to town for a predraft workout that went unreported until after the draft. The Pistons didn’t expect Cousins to be there at No. 7, but they were hoping it was possible – it was widely known that many teams were leery of Cousins’ emotional instability – and, in fact, it seemed more likely that Cousins would slip to them than Monroe.

Monroe never worked out for the Pistons as his agent, David Falk, had strong indications he’d go no lower than No. 6, to Golden State. Sacramento also was known to be interested in Monroe, who had an impressive workout for the Kings. Cousins, though, reportedly had a phenomenal workout in Sacramento on the weekend before the draft.

Sacramento GM Geoff Petrie swallowed hard on draft night and decided to roll the dice on the enormous upside of Cousins, who has a much thicker frame – in the lower body, particularly – than Monroe. The Pistons, though, got the opening to one of their three coveted big men when Golden State became enamored late in the draft process of Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh, a defensive-minded big man.

Cousins has had issues in both seasons in Sacramento, clashing with teammates last season and being suspended this year by coach Paul Westphal early this season. That sparked speculation the Kings would deal Cousins; instead, Westphal was quickly fired.

Monroe, meanwhile, carried himself with dignity through a turbulent rookie season with the Pistons, impressing with his maturity and hunger to improve. There are many more chapters yet to go in the Monroe-Cousins book, but the Pistons like the way the plot is unfolding so far.