Dealing With DeMarcus

Past the midway point of DeMarcus Cousin’s rookie season, as Dennis Green might say, he is who we thought he was; a superbly talented big man with troubling character issues.

Sacramento fined their young power forward an undisclosed amount on Monday after investigating his role in an altercation with teammate Donte Greene following the Kings 99-97 l0ss to Oklahoma City Saturday night. Cousins was reportedly upset that Greene didn’t pass him the ball for the final sh0t of the game, instead dishing it to Tyreke Evans, who missed a three-point attempt. Cousins confronted Greene in the locker room after the game and again on the team flight before being removed from the plane.

This wasn’t the first time the Kings had to discipline their big man this season. He was fined during training camp for verbally abusing the team’s strength and conditioning coach and Coach Paul Westphal kicked him out of practice in November. Then he was fined and removed from the starting lineup for one game for making a choking gesture at Golden State’s Reggie Williams during a game in December.

It sounds like Cousins is hardly worth the trouble, until you remember that he’s one of the most physically gifted big men to enter the NBA over the past decade. He has big, soft hands, a wingspan well over seven feet and at 6’11 and close to 300 pounds is adept at gaining good position in the low post. He’s used that size and strength along with great instincts to lead NBA rookies in rebounding and become a very difficult force to defend around the basket.

The rookie is averaging 13.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in just 27 minutes a night. Last night, in his first game since the altercation with Greene, he posted 21 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks in just 27 minutes of action. He’s been dominant at times this season, though his effort and aggressiveness have been inconsistent.

His reputation as a malcontent dates back to his high school days. Last year, during his lone season at Kentucky he clashed with Coach John Calipari on the sidelines on several occasions and developed a reputation for being moody. The media and scouts questioned his drive and conditioning. Still, he put staggering numbers per minute, averaging 15.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in just 23 minutes per game.

That mixture of talent and controversy made Cousins a divisive figure heading into last year’s NBA draft. On talent alone he may have been the first player selected, but teams shied away from him because of perceived character issues. ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla summed it up the sentiment of scouts when he said, “He [Cousins] is either going to get a general manager fired or get him executive of the year.” Sacramento’s President of Basketball Operations Geoff Petrie took a chance on Cousins’ immense talent and selected him with the fifth pick.

Now the question for the Kings is how to deal with their immature, ultra-talented rookie. Immature is the key word. Cousins is only 20 years-old, two years removed from high school and like most elite modern day athletes has been pampered every step of the way. Coach Cal knew the kid was one-and-done at Kentucky and had no incentive to discipline him or time to teach him how to carry himself on or off the court.

The Kings’ relationship with their prized rookie is complicated by the high stakes business of the NBA. The league and teams are marketed through individual players. Superstars sell tickets, which gives top tier players a stranglehold over their respective organizations. We saw the power LeBron wielded over the Cavs, pressuring them to make moves to keep him in town. Carmelo has held the Nuggets hostage all season with his demands and Orlando, New Orleans and Utah are already quivering at the prospect of losing their franchise players, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams next season.

The Kings know they have something special in Cousins and are well aware of how valuable he could be to the franchise if he fulfills his potential. It’s also become increasingly difficult for small market teams to retain star players. So management has been walking the tightrope between trying to mold him into the person and consequently the player he can be, without pushing him away if and when he becomes that player.

They decided to hold Cousins out of their game against the Suns Sunday night while investigating his altercation with Greene and fined him for the incident, but failed to suspend him. It was a slap on the wrist for a player who’s initiated four incidents this season.

Management’s middle of the road approach with Cousins won’t work. Young men don’t stop making demands, acting out and bucking authority unless there are serious repercussions to their actions, such as a substantial suspension in Cousins’ case. They need to take a stand. Paternalism may push him away, but if they don’t try and rein him in now, he won’t be worth the trouble of holding them ransom in the future anyway, regardless of how much he improves his game.

Carmelo, LeBron and Chris Paul may be divas, but they play hard, value team ball and are respected in the locker room. That’s what makes them great players and is the reason their teams are so desperate to hold on to them. The Derrick Colemans and Stephon Marburys of the world don’t win championships or sell tickets.

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