More than 3,000 fans of his new team showed they were believers in DeMarcus Cousins the instant they heard his name. "With the fifth pick in the 2010 NBA draft," commissioner David Stern announced from the podium in Madison Square Garden as the faithful gathered around the video screens inside ARCO Arena last Thursday, "the Sacramento Kings select DeMarcus...." The fans' cheers and applause drowned out the rest.
Almost 3,000 miles away, news of the celebration he had set off in California was received with surprise and relief by Cousins, the Kentucky freshman center who had spent the last three months hearing pundits, reporters and NBA executives debate his emotional maturity. Yes, he had an NBA body and great promise, but did he have issues with anger? Could he be coached? Then he heard the commissioner announce his selection, and any doubts about his future vanished, as if Cousins had awakened in New York City from a strange nightmare.
The Kings had been investigating Cousins for weeks as their belief in him rose steadily "like a wave that keeps building," says team president Geoff Petrie. At 6'11" and 292 pounds Cousins averaged a highly efficient 15.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in his brief 23.5 minutes per game while sharing time and touches with four Kentucky teammates who joined him in the first round of the draft, including point guard John Wall, the No. 1 pick overall, by the Wizards. Cousins could be the first overpowering center whom Petrie has deployed in his 20-year pursuit of a championship as an executive with the Kings and the Trail Blazers. "He can be hands down one of the top 10 players in the league," says Kentucky power forward Patrick Patterson, who was picked No. 14 by the Rockets. "He has the size, the ability, the power, and he definitely has the determination and drive."
Petrie is convinced that Cousins will be more than the glass-trembling brute he was in Lexington. During his predraft workout at Sacramento, Cousins made 80 of 95 jump shots inside the three-point line, a higher rate than any other Kings prospect. "He has a fundamentally sound stroke—you just didn't see it at Kentucky because he was in the post pretty much all the time," says Petrie. "You can see he's a tremendous passer if you watch the breakdown videos. His sense of passing out of that low post even now at 19 is very, very good."
Cousins envisions himself becoming not Shaquille O'Neal but a more muscular version of versatile Lakers big man Pau Gasol. Last month following an interview in a sweltering gym in suburban Washington, where he had spent several weeks training for the draft, Cousins strode onto the court in flip-flops and drained three after three while glancing back at a reporter between shots. "Yeah," said his trainer, Keith Williams, "he wants to show you some of that."
When they were contending for championships from 2001 through '04, the Kings were a finesse team. Now they're emphasizing a physical approach, having traded on June 17 for 6'11" Samuel Dalembert—an athletic, if erratic, shot blocker—and building their future around Cousins and reigning rookie of the year Tyreke Evans, a 6'6", 220-pound point guard and a punishing player in his own right. "I've got a lot of respect for Mr. [Andrew] Bynum," says Kings co-owner Joe Maloof of the Lakers' 7-foot, 285-pound center. "But I've got a message for him: You're not going to be pushing [Cousins] around. I don't know how anyone [in the draft] passes on this guy."
That a potentially dominant center was available with the fifth pick of the draft was based on a couple of factors. One has to do with the devaluation of post play over the last decade as the NBA has effectively banned physical defense on the perimeter and liberated athletic slashers with three-point range to dominate the league. The newfound emphasis on perimeter play helps explain why the 6'4" Wall, Ohio State's 6'7" swingman Evan Turner (the No. 2 pick, to the 76ers) and Syracuse's 6'7" forward Wesley Johnson (No. 4, to the Timberwolves) were chosen ahead of Cousins amid little second-guessing. (The Nets used the No. 3 pick on 6'10" power forward Derrick Favors because they already have an emerging center in Brook Lopez.)
The other reason for passing on Cousins was the persistent questions about his maturity. During his season in Lexington, Cousins made the talk shows for allegedly throwing an intentional elbow at a Louisville player in a struggle for a loose ball on Jan. 2 and for reportedly taking a swing at a South Carolina fan after the Gamecocks upset the Wildcats on Jan. 26. (Cousins denied both accusations and neither was corroborated by video or another source.) More damning was an altercation at Erwin High in Birmingham, where Cousins was suspended for the second half of his sophomore season after he admitted punching a school bus driver.
"Whoever picks him is going to have to build a big force field around him," said one executive before the draft. "You wonder about him being able to stand on his own two feet, and now you add the fact that he's about to get a ton of money and publicity...."
Petrie dismisses such concerns as unwarranted. "There was only one incident when he was very young," he says of the school bus fight, "and the people who were there didn't think DeMarcus was the [instigator]. You see all this stuff [about his reputation], but there are never specifics attached to it. He has no criminal record of any kind, no traffic tickets—he doesn't even have a driver's license."