Cousins a wild card at top of draft
DeMarcus Cousins has No. 1 pick-type talent, but maturity issues are a concern
Cousins says he has 'no clue' why he's become a lightning rod in NBA circles
The Pistons, who pick No. 7, are believed to covet the productive Cousins
The "wingspan" player of this NBA draft is Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins, whose reach bridges the No. 1 pick to the middle of the lottery. Cousins is talented enough to be chosen ahead of all of his peers on Thursday (though that isn't going to happen), and he is controversial enough to slide to No. 7 (not likely to happen either).
The talent is undeniable. At 6-foot-11, 292 pounds, he became the nation's dominant big man as a freshman while playing just 23.5 minutes as part of a roster that could produce five first-round picks in the draft.
"Look at his stats per minute," said Florida International coach Isiah Thomas, who can speak freely of prospects now that he isn't affiliated with an NBA team. "In his 23 minutes, he averaged 9.8 rebounds and scored 15.1 points and had 1.8 blocks a game. I know people question his athleticism, but he was in an offense that was very guard-oriented, so for him to be able to do those things there is no arguing the talent."
Cousins can play power forward, but for most teams in this size-hungry era he would be slotted at center. As for his position in the draft, that will depend on how teams view the lingering questions about his emotional maturity and temper.
"I've seen big mood swings from him," said a longtime scout whose team is not in the lottery.
Other teams wonder if Cousins is prepared to make the leap to the NBA, where he will have to be self-sufficient in ways that he has yet to experience.
"He doesn't have a driver's license,'' said an executive from a team that is picking in the lottery. "That's a little thing, but it's also a huge thing. Whoever picks him is going to have to build a big force field around him. You wonder about him being able to stand on his own two feet, and now you add the fact he's about to get a ton of money and publicity -- and you think that's going to make him work harder?"
And yet, as the same executive points out, any team that has an opportunity to pick Cousins at No. 4, 5 or 6 -- whether it's Minnesota, Sacramento, Golden State or a team that trades into one of those spots -- will have a difficult time passing on his talent.
"I'm the bad guy," said Cousins, who despite his reputation is quick to smile and was popular with fans and reporters at Kentucky. "Throughout this whole draft process the only person getting the negatives -- I'll say the most negatives -- is me."
Why has he become the lightning rod?
"I have no clue," Cousins said.
Cousins grew up in Alabama wanting to play in the NFL. As he grew and grew his mother, Monique Cousins (herself 6-1), urged him to switch to basketball to avoid injury. He started to become serious about basketball in seventh grade but didn't develop an understanding and love for the game until he moved to Mobile for his junior and senior years at LeFlore High School. His time there was preceded by an attempted transfer to another Alabama high school that was prohibited when the coach was found to have violated state rules by recruiting Cousins and two other highly touted transfers. That incident was preceded by a physical altercation at Birmingham's Erwin High School involving a baseball coach/school bus driver, which led to Cousins' suspension from basketball for the second half of his sophomore year.
"That's always going to be in the picture, and I think that's completely unfair because I was a sophomore in high school -- I was 16," Cousins said. "I haven't had a problem since then. And I have red flags? Off-court issues? I don't get it."
Monique Cousins counseled her son to hire agent John Greig, who is not one of the high-powered representatives but has promised to work with her to hold DeMarcus to a high standard of conduct and professionalism.
"When DeMarcus' talent really started to shine, no one prepared us for the craziness that was about to start," Monique Cousins said. "I wish someone would write a book about the process, because parents need to know what their child is stepping into.''
Cousins could be seen in animated discussion during games with Kentucky coach John Calipari as well as with Otis Hughley, his high school coach at LeFlore who revamped his offensive system to feature Cousins. Hughley has viewed those disagreements as constructive attempts by both he and Cousins to find the right formula.
"At first we were clashing heads,'' Cousins said of his relationship with Hughley, who will join the player's family in New York for the draft. "We were trying to figure it out. We had our problems but it was all good and we won games."
Cousins averaged 24.1 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.1 steals, 4.6 assists and 3.2 blocks as a high school senior, but he didn't win the state award as Mr. Basketball in part because of a poor ending to his season. He went 2-for-12 from the floor in a 52-39 loss to Parker High School in the state semifinals and fouled out on a technical foul with less than four minutes remaining. He was criticized for declining to meet with reporters, saying that he was too upset by the loss.
Some teams are concerned by Cousins' demonstrations of temper and emotion, while others -- led by the Pistons, who covet him and have the No. 7 pick -- view them as promising signs of a player who loves the game and cares about winning. So many NBA big men are passive players who don't appear to love the game. They play basketball because their height mandates it. Cousins' believers tend to view his misdemeanors and misunderstandings as incidents of passion.
Is it better to invest a big man who cares, as opposed to those who feel compelled to play? Let's rephrase the question around the example of the NBA's most renowned hothead: Did Rasheed Wallace's temper overshadow his talent? I would argue that his technical fouls and other outbursts were a small price to pay in exchange for his production for Portland and Detroit at both ends of the floor.
"I think people have piled on [Cousins] without having a chance to know him,'' said an executive from a team that is picking in the lottery. "If you find a big man who likes the game, that's a big thing. If the guy is getting upset about things on the court, to me that means he cares about it. Will he need to control some of that? Absolutely. But I'd rather deal with someone who has that passion and is trying to control it, as opposed to someone you're trying to force to play with that passion."
The Pistons are aggressively pursuing Cousins as an offensive-minded replacement for Ben Wallace, who dominated the paint during their extended run of championship contention. The Pistons have been offering a swap of picks along with shooting guard Richard Hamilton in hopes of moving up to take Cousins. But the salary cap will be an issue as Hamilton has three years remaining on his contract at $12.5 million annually, which would eat into the cap space of the Nets, (who own the No. 3 pick) the Timberwolves (No. 4) and the Kings (No. 5).