Posted: Monday October 1, 2012 2:34PM ; Updated: Monday October 1, 2012 6:48PM
Sam Amick
Sam Amick>INSIDE THE NBA

After busy summer, Cousins ready to take his place among NBA elite

Story Highlights

DeMarcus Cousins spent summer practicing with Team USA and getting into shape

He enters camp in great shape, believes he's ready to join elite group of centers

With drama behind him, Cousins is certain he and Tyreke Evans can carry Kings

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DeMarcus Cousins
DeMarcus Cousins averaged 18.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks for the 22-44 Kings last year.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Of course there's a dog living in the wine cellar.

This is, after all, the home of enigmatic Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. Blake Griffin may not be welcome here, but all things unconventional and against the grain most certainly are. Not that there's no normalcy to be found in the two-story, five-bedroom abode.

Here in this quiet neighborhood a few miles away from his basketball home on the other side of Interstate 5, there's the standard big-screen television and the obligatory PlayStation 3 that are staples in the home of any pro athlete these days. Pictures of his past hang in the hallway with framed magazine covers (Sports Illustrated among them) highlighting his exploits at Kentucky. In the living room, two large paintings of Cousins wearing home and road Kings uniforms are the centerpieces of adjacent walls.

Loso, a white English bulldog with large brown spots and, of course, a Kings collar, rests nearby behind the metal gate with rods that look like vines. The resident alpha dog, meanwhile, settles into the family room sofa to discuss his summer and the notion that he could join the NBA's elite this season.

AMICK: Cousins, other players poised for strong seasons

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Before the first question can even be completed, Cousins -- looking lean with a 6-foot-11 frame that is nearly 20 pounds lighter than it was at the end of last season -- provides a reminder as to why he's rattled so many cages in recent years. He is forever candid and uncouth, and, in this case, quick to correct the premise of a reporter's first question.

His experience with the U.S. select team in Las Vegas in July won't be remembered as a positive one, he insists, and his well-publicized dust-up with USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo is to blame.

"No, it wasn't [positive]," Cousins interjected unapologetically. "No."

During the week in which the select squad played against the Olympic team as training for the London Olympics, Cousins drew criticism for being too physical in scrimmages. Colangelo told reporters that Cousins "has some growing up to do." Cousins later approached Colangelo to discuss their rift.

"I didn't enjoy it," he said of the experience. "I went out there, and ... I'm not going to say I didn't learn anything from it, because I did. But it was just, in my mind, another political battle. I learned more about politics. I saw the work ethic of the so-called elite in the league, and I took some notes from that and took that back with me. But as far as the rest of it? No.

"Honestly, the scrimmages were one-sided the whole time. To even have a chance, you had to play hard as hell. We were out there getting our heads knocked off, and if they're going to play physical, then I'm going to play physical back. I'm not out there trying to start fights -- just trying to stand on my own. But I guess the ignorance of people is they take it as being immature."

Cousins was battling for the Olympic spot that opened when Griffin went down with a knee injury. (Griffin has become something of an arch nemesis in Cousins' mind, their one-sided tiff coming to a head last season when Cousins deemed Griffin "an actor" who is "babied" by the NBA.) While Cousins eventually lost out to another former Kentucky big man, No. 1 pick Anthony Davis, his tough play ultimately won him some fans.

"He's had a couple really good days here back-to-back," Colangelo said after the select team camp. "His play, his demeanor, his conduct, everything."

More than two months later, Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie agreed that Cousins seemed to take a step forward this offseason.

"It has the potential for a really significant growth year for him," Petrie told SI.com. "On the physical side for sure, he really consistently worked on his conditioning, played every day for the past couple weeks here getting ready. He's shooting the ball very well. He's coming into camp in the best shape I've ever seen him, really.

"So if we can combine the physical improvement with some skill improvement and some mental improvement, then there could be some real growth. ... It's all still in the development phase. He's a player where the elevator for him can still go way up, and we'll keep working with him to try to get him there."

The list of elite NBA centers is a short one: the Lakers' Dwight Howard and Philadelphia's Andrew Bynum. But the idea that Cousins is closing fast in the big-man race is as real as the sneer on his face when he was asked to argue on his own behalf.

"I'm not going to even speak on" who is the best big man in the game, said Cousins, who averaged 18.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks last season for the 22-44 Kings. "Whoever you consider the best in the game, just check my game against theirs. Go look at the game stats and you tell me.

"My game speaks for itself. Regardless of our team's record, their team's record, or who made the playoffs or whatever, I'm one of the best big men in this game right now."

Cousins' trainer, Keith Williams, believes his client has turned a corner.

"I think a light has clicked on," he said as he sat near Cousins in his home. "It's not as bright as we want it to be, but it's getting there."

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