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January 24, 2012
Making Progress
The Development of DeMarcus Cousins

by Kevin Pelton

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PORTLAND - The last time DeMarcus Cousins visited the Rose Garden, during the final days of his troubled relationship with Paul Westphal, he put up a lackluster stat line in a blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. The final result wasn't a whole lot better Monday, as the Blazers controlled the final three quarters of a 101-89 victory that was never really in doubt, but the Sacramento Kings could take some consolation in their willingness to compete and elements of Cousins' performance.

Despite rolling his ankle during the third quarter, Cousins racked up 18 points and 13 rebounds for his fourth consecutive double-double and his 12th in 17 games this season. While that particular stat may not be telling as far as Cousins' value, it does suggest he is beginning to find the consistency that eluded him last season, especially on the glass. Cousins leads the NBA in offensive rebounding and is one of just seven players throughout the league grabbing at least 20 percent of all available rebounds.

Cousins' results as a scorer are more mixed. As I noted in an Unfiltered post at the time of Westphal's firing, Cousins was bound to improve at the rim simply by virtue of better luck. Indeed, his at-rim shooting has rebounded from 42.1 percent to 48.5 percent and his overall shooting percentage (44.4 percent) is now as good as it has been all season.

Still, 44.4 percent accuracy is quite low for a post player. Cousins has improved his shot selection this season, taking outside jumpers more judiciously (he's even hitting 49.0 percent of his long twos), but in order to justify his heavy role in the Sacramento offense (he's using 27.4 percent of the team's plays this season), Cousins will have to find a way to be more efficient around the basket. Too often, Cousins tends to make the finesse play in traffic rather than simply finishing with power, which will often draw contact if not a made basket. In an odd sense, Cousins must make a similar transition to the one Derrick Rose made last season when he began drawing more free throws.

It would certainly help Cousins if he had more playmakers around him. He has been effective in the pick-and-roll, averaging 0.97 points per play as a roll man, according to mySynergySports.com. However, he's getting just two shots a night from these situations, in large part because the Kings don't have a true point guard for whom they can call regular pick-and-rolls.

At the defensive end, Cousins' focus and energy come and go. His help defense was lacking at times as Portland got easy shot opportunities. However, Cousins is also blocking more shots than he did last season. He's nearly doubled his block rate while playing more center following the departure of Samuel Dalembert in free agency.

The bottom line from Cousins' advanced statistics is that he's improving. A below-average player as a rookie, when he posted a .444 win percentage, Cousins has already surpassed his 2010-11 WARP total and now rates as far better than average on a per-minute basis, with a .585 win percentage. That matches what Keith Smart, Westphal's replacement, is seeing from his pupil.

"I'm pleased with the way he's playing," Smart said after the game. "He's making big-time steps--the steps the franchise wants him to make at this age in his second year. He's on a great pace right now of doing the things I want, doing the things the team need him to do: Good energy, being a passer and decision-maker, rebounding, getting in better shape. Across the board, he's doing everything. He's showing he can play a little bit longer. He's on track."

Conditioning has been Smith's constant refrain with Cousins, and explains why he logged heavy minutes (39) in a game Portland led by as many as 22 points. Smart wants Cousins on the court to play his way into game shape. To do that, Cousins had to fight back from the ankle injury, which initially looked serious. He proceeded gingerly the rest of the way and rationed his energy on defense at times, but Smart was happy Cousins was willing to play through pain.

"He went in and got re-taped and came right back," said Smart. "He wanted to play. That's the growth of this young man. This young man is growing. Not many people can appreciate what he's doing right now and how he's trying to do things the right way."

Cousins will always be an emotional player. A simple glance at his body language will make the results of the previous play evident. To the extent that bleeds into technicals, or quitting on a play, it must be tempered. But I don't think it's possible, or even desirable, to keep Cousins from getting worked up. The same passion that manifests itself in outbursts also fuels Cousins' best basketball. On Monday night, he seemed to strike the right balance. Cousins was baffled when one call went against him defending the post in the second half, but the situation was quickly defused. (It was Smart, not Cousins, who drew a technical late in the first half after the Blazers took control of the game.)

As compared to Cousins' antagonistic relationship with Westphal, Smart seems to be going out of his way to be supportive and provide positive reinforcement for Cousins. Only time will tell whether that strategy can be successful, but the development Cousins is making is a good sign.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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