Why We Watch: Demarcus Cousins, Dunking Dichotomy

Demarcus Cousins is great except when he isn't, dazzling except when he's awful, and 100% 22-years-old.
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His nickname is ‘Boogie’ and his reputation is rotten. Mostly, though, Demarcus Cousins is a remarkable basketball phenomenon: a 6-11, 270-pound giant bounding and tap-dancing gracefully in the paint; a walking, talking, dunking, pouting contradiction; a star intent on playing his game, his way; very much and very unavoidably a 22-year-old person. Watch him and you’ll come to love him and hate him, for all the things he is and for the things he also is not, or is not yet. It’s tough to know how good Cousins will be, two years from now or tonight or tomorrow. It’s impossible, after even a few minutes of watching him be his baffling, brilliant self, not to care about the answer, whenever it arrives.

He has, you might be surprised to learn, a big, bright, friendly smile. The home fans see it and the road fans don’t. For the Boogie-tourists, he’s all sneer and scowl and wait-for-it-to-boil-over. The home fans get their hardship, too: for them, Cousins is an All-Star centerpiece-to-be with unlimited potential, but one with a notable penchant for petulance that can deflate his brilliance instantly, at any moment. Demarcus Cousins is all of these things and some other things, too. That’s why he’s the most interesting and confounding young player in the NBA.

***

When he is at his best on the floor, the greatest mystery about Demarcus Cousins is how four teams chose not to draft him. It's not just that skilled big men in pro basketball are a scarce and valuable commodity, and that Cousins is both massively massive and massively skilled. It's that Cousins is uniquely, uncommonly and uncannily skilled—that he can move faster and more gracefully and with more purpose than most any player his size currently in the NBA, while still doing the basic, backbreaking work of rebounding and defense. And then he tosses his headband into the stands and glares at the referee and you begin to understand.

This behavior and the rep it earned have dogged Cousins since high school—quite rightly, his opponents (and many referees) will say. Just like in high school and in his one season at Kentucky, opposing players try to goad him into reacting, and sometimes it works. Yet talk to the few who really know him and to a one they'll describe someone very different: a likable, friendly person; a happy goofball who's never happier than when he's at his goofiest, be that when he's having tickle-fights with his brother or doing an interview in a particularly silly-looking winter hat. That teddy bear is right there at the top of the list of league leaders in technical fouls each year, the one with the reputation as a coach-tester and sometime coach-killer. Cousins says it was a misunderstanding, that whole thing with Paul Westphal, and that he was really the victim. Perhaps it was, and perhaps he was.

With Boogie, this is it—it’s all dichotomy, duality, contrast: the teddy bear that glowers, unstoppable talent that regularly powers itself down. This is odd, maybe, but it's not inconsistent: this is who Demarcus Cousins really is. All of it. He's as contradictory and self-defeating as anyone, as all of us are. He just happens to be much better at basketball than anyone his size and age.

***

And Demarcus Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player: a deft, agile, surprisingly mobile big man. That size, those shoulders, the quick feet and mean streak—the quickness with an extra-sharp elbow, gratuitous but effective all the same—that recall Moses Malone, or the Mailman.

Then he’ll try to do something that he hasn’t quite mastered yet, maybe never tried before—a pass to no one or a shot almost no one can make. With 18 points and 11 rebounds per game last season he improved on a strong rookie year, but his true shooting percentage was, for a player who spends as much time as Cousins does at and above the rim, an astonishingly low .499. He makes one of those plays that you rewind the DVR to watch again and again, but when you catch up to real time, he’s somehow pouting on the bench: yanked from the game again, or with four silly, sudden fouls around his neck. Cousins has range, can pass and plays hard-nosed defense except when he doesn’t. It is all there, in fact, everything that one could want from a big man, except when it isn't. Which is why it's both natural and common to wonder if something about Boogie is, well, just a little bit off. A spring not entirely sprung. If no one on the floor can hold him back when he's at his best, then it has to be Demarcus Cousins himself that's doing it, right?

Maybe, or maybe Demarcus Cousins is still figuring it out in the same way—and with the same missteps and frustrations—any person his age is inevitably still figuring things out. Kentucky fans loved Cousins as much as any player in recent memory. He posed for pictures without complaint, playfully taunted opposing fans and generally soaked up the adulation. The sillier he was, the more they liked him. Kings fans are learning to do the same, if only because they have to. Sacramento's front office doesn’t look like it’s quite figured out what they have with Cousins yet, and while it's easy to goof on this front office—the team that drafted Jimmer Fredette, that starts a 6-6 center and a 5-9 point guard and hasn't finished above .500 in seven years—they're not alone in this. No one knows what we have in Demarcus Cousins just yet.

But, in Boogie, we and they clearly have something. The Kings have a big man to build around; there are not many of those in the NBA today, and fewer still with the package of skills that Cousins possesses. He knows this. He tells one reporter: “There’s no one in the world that can stop me.” And he may be right. On a given night, he can be unquestionably right in that assertion. At the moment, he’s only partially right, or right only part of the time. But no one is ever really all the way anything at 22 years of age.

Like everyone else in the in-between of growing up, Demarcus Cousins is a conundrum; unlike everyone else, he could grow up into something extraordinary. The skill is so fine, the power so alluring, the talent so vast—it's all raw, it's only there part of the time, but to see it even in flashes is to see something very bright and rare. And because of that, it's natural to want it to work to its peak right now: to get the bullish grace, the focused power, every game, always. Maybe it happens that Demarcus Cousins grows into his own brilliance. Or, perhaps, this is all we get—these bits and bursts. He's working on it.

Illustration by Cole Nielsen.


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