DeMarcus Cousins‘ on-court tantrums can be worse than your six-year-old’s. Ejections, scuffles and whistles follow him. He was even sent home for a game on the road against New Orleans last season. In the words of Jerry Colangelo at July’s USA Select Team practice, Cousins “has a lot of growing up to do.”
But here’s what you haven’t heard: At 22 years old and entering just his third year in the league, Cousins is already performing better than Andrew Bynum did at this point in his career on both ends of the floor. And in a league where the traditional big man is disappearing faster than LeBron-can’t-win jokes, Cousins has more upside in Sacramento than Bynum does in Philly this year.
When you talk about either of the two young centers, you always hear the word “potential” before the long-winded sentence: “He could be great if…”
If he listened more than he talked. If he got more rebounds than fouls. If he cared more about Ws than his own double-doubles.
The “if” is what this season will test.
After seven years, the Lakers grew tired of waiting, even after Bynum’s best year yet where he averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 boards on 55 percent shooting from the field in the shortened regular season. The Lakers wanted another center who showed more consistent production, so they traded Bynum in the offseason, a move the Kings may pursue with Cousins.
There were times Cousins wanted out too.
Yet because the Kings traded for new people to build around Cousins – namely, firing head coach Paul Westphal (51-120 in two seasons), hiring Keith Smart, and bringing in point guard Aaron Brooks – suggests management is hoping (albeit by their last thread) Cousins can become their franchise player, seeing his development more as a priority than a problem.
Drafted No. 5 overall after one year at Kentucky, Cousins averaged 14.1 points and 8.7 boards in just 28 minutes a game as a rookie. Last season, playing just two more minutes per contest, Cousins had a breakout double-double line of 18 and 11.
People (rightfully so) talk about how he led the league in technical fouls (12) last year, but they overlook that he also led the league in number of charges taken (49). At 6-11, 270 pounds, Cousins is a much quicker defender and hustler than the 7-0, 285-pound Bynum.
As the No. 10 overall pick fresh out of high school in 2005, the 18-year-old Bynum was the youngest player to ever play in a regular season game. In his first two years with the Lakers, he averaged 4.7 points and 3.8 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game. Critics questioned Bynum’s maturity as well, and that continued through last season, where he shot a three (if that’s what you want to call it) before Mike Brown benched him.
But the stats leave out a minor detail: Bynum played with someone named Kobe Bryant, and Cousins has played with…well…nobody.
The Lakers demanded dominance from Bynum in a system where he was never the top option. After Bynum’s arrival, Kobe attempted 11,876 regular season field goals. During that same span, Bynum took 3,221. Whether it was Bynum’s knees halting his mobility to move from the low to the high post, and set screens in the triangle offense, or whether it was just sheer laziness, his touches were clearly limited.
Playing for the downtrodden purple and white Kings at the bottom of the Western Conference isn’t the same as playing for the storied purple and gold of L.A. When Cousins shoots free throws, he doesn’t look up and see the jerseys of big men before him, like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or 16 championship banners peering down on him from the rafters. Cousins doesn’t carry Showtime on his shoulders either. Bynum is a proven player in playoff circles; Cousins has never played in the postseason.
Yet Bynum is at a crossroads, and whether or not he can get past his hump of potential in Philly may serve as a model for how Cousins can break through.
For the first time in his career, Bynum can’t point fingers at other guys in the locker room – he will be the focal player of the team, and he must produce more than ever before.
But Cousins has even more upside because he’s more durable than Bynum, whose knees continue to haunt him. Bynum’s played a full 82-game season just once. For a big man, Cousins’ agility gives him an advantage.
But despite that, as a penetrating point guard, Brooks’ ability to get to the basket and suck the defense in will still be critical to Cousins’ touches. He also has more experience than his backcourt competition (Isaiah Thomas, Jimmer Fredette). Most importantly, Brooks knows how to play with a big man. For two years, he learned the ins and outs of driving and dishing to Yao Ming in Houston before averaging a career-high 19 points and five assists a game en route to 2009-10 NBA Most Improved Player honors. His versatility will allow him to seamlessly switch between the one and the two with a healthy Tyreke Evans.
Sacramento could even put 11 new players around him, but it still remains: Cousins can’t continuously keep himself off the floor. He’s already a 20-and-10 guy in reduced burn. Can you imagine what he could do with a new attitude and 35-plus minutes a night? And after missing the playoffs for six straight years, what the Kings could do?
In February, Bynum was asked what he thought about Cousins’ situation.
“He’s a good player, definitely coming up. It’s terrible that he has to play in Sacramento. He could take his talents somewhere and really help a team. It’s not working out,” he told The Sacramento Bee.
Maybe Bynum’s forecast is too early. Or maybe he’s onto something – Cousins might need to follow Bynum’s lead and start somewhere new.
I have a feeling Cousins will let us know.
Which player would you rather have for the next five years?
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