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Better Know a Prospect: DeMarcus Cousins, C - Kentucky

DeMarcus Cousins absolutely dominated his college competition. From a physical and statistical standpoint, he was far and away the best big man in the NCAA last year, and he will be the highest ranked center on the vast majority of NBA draft boards. His physical size is imposing (6'11", 270 lbs, 7'6" wingspan), but he also has surprising grace and agility on his feet. Coupled with his ability to dominate on the boards and finish around the rim, he has the potential to be an outstanding NBA big man.

However, DeMarcus has his detractors. The most common complaints about Cousins stem from his makeup and character - he doesn't hustle back on defense, he has poor body language during games, he isn't coachable, and he shows a lack of focus and discipline. Even his harshest critics concede that he has undergone a great maturation process in the past year and admit that his talent is great enough to justify taking a risk on his makeup.

Bio - Born to a single mother with four other children, Cousins got involved in basketball at the age of 14, playing for an AAU team in Birmingham, Alabama. People quickly noticed that he was really good and really big, and he was soon ranked the best 8th grader in the nation. Early in high school, he was physically dominant but had a string of off-court incidents including a fight with a faculty member on a school bus. He was deemed ineligible to play at his Birmingham high school due to recruiting violations. He moved to Mobile, Alabama and played for LeFlore High School, where he joined a team that had already enjoyed enormous success in the state. Cousins was completely dominant in Alabama, helping his team roll to a 35-0 record heading into the state championship game his senior season. His squeaky clean record since his days in Birmingham ended in that game, where he scored only seven points and fouled out with three minutes remaining on a technical foul. Those who saw the game said DeMarcus complained to the officials throughout the game.

Cousins originally committed to play for UAB in college, but decommitted and decided to play for John Calipari at Kentucky. Sources conflict about why Cousins decided to not attend UAB. Wikipedia says: "Cousins first committed to UAB on February 28, 2008 but never signed a letter of intent because he wanted to be released if UAB's head coach, Mike Davis, left for another school, but the school refused to comply with this condition."
By contrast, the Cousins family (via Yahoo! Sports) say: "For awhile Cousins had considered signing with Alabama-Birmingham to play for Mike Davis, but by that point he was ready to leave the state. He said he needed a fresh start, and it's tough to get a fresh start in an old place where people harp on your past instead of offering encouraging words about your future."

The Yahoo! article indicates the decommitment from UAB was due to the response in the state of Alabama to his poor performance at the state championship game - Cousins just couldn't handle the verbal abuse. I'm certainly in no position to decide which story is closer to the truth, but I'm sure many factors went into the decision to go to Kentucky, and trying to isolate only one is foolish - truth is indeterminate.

Cousins went on to play at Kentucky, where he, by all accounts, matured personally and physically, and he was voted the SEC Freshman of the Year. John Calipari and the staff at Kentucky have been uniformly effusive in their praise of the big man.

Stats: DeMarcus Cousins positively steamrolled his competition, averaging 24.5 points, 15.9 rebounds, 2.9 blocks (all per 40 minutes, pace adjusted) and a 56% effective field goal percentage. He displayed a knack for getting to the line with .73 free throws per field goals attempted, and knocked down 60% of his free throws. Moreover, he had a very high offensive rating - 113.1 - while using an enormous 31.3% of possessions, indicating that he can be efficient even with a high usage rate. The stat that could be a red flag is minutes: he only played 23.5 minutes per game. Part of that is due to his lack of conditioning and part is due to his foul rate - he averaged 5.2 personal fouls per 40 minutes (again, pace adjusted). That means that he's expected to foul out if he plays the whole game.

A substantial amount of his efficiency came from his ability to get to the free throw line - he drew the third most fouls in the NCAA. His complete physical domination down low required that teams foul him when he got the ball in the post. However, in the NBA, he won't be able to physically dominate all the other centers, and he might not be able to get to the foul line as easily, nullifying his greatest attribute.

A common knock on Cousins is that he plays poorly when facing big and physical centers. His performances against UNC and UConn are usually cited in this analysis. But I don't find evidence of that - he had a bad game against UNC (foul trouble, played 13 minutes, 5 pts, 5 reb, 1 blk, 1 of 5 FT), but that was his seventh game as a collegian, and he had previously only played terrible teams like Cleveland State and Sam Houston. He faced UConn in the very next game where he showed off his quick learning curve - he had 10 points and 10 rebounds, played 23 minutes and only had 3 fouls.

All in all, Cousins didn't get much of a chance to prove himself against comparable big men in college, in part because no center in the NCAA is his equal, and in part because Kentucky didn't play Georgetown or Baylor or Georgia Tech or Wake Forest. When he played Louis Varnado at Mississippi State, Cousins completely dominated in their two matchups - 19 points, 14 rebounds in one game and 10 points, 10 rebounds in the other. Although I expect him to face a learning curve in the NBA and have a harder time getting to the free throw line, his inability to play against other big, physical centers is overblown.

Skills: Cousins has the best skills of any big man in the draft. He has the size and wingspan to be a great NBA center, and he has great hands and is relatively nimble to boot. He is a great pick and roll player, a skill that will be even more utilized at the next level (I just had a vision of a CP3-Cousins pick and roll offense, and I almost had a seizure thinking of how awesome it would be). DeMarcus can face the basket, play with his back to the basket, and put the ball on the floor. He even has nice touch on his jump shot and can occasionally hit the open three. He lacks fantastic post moves (he's used to just bowling people over), but he can carve out a good position in the post for an entry pass.

His biggest skill problems come on defense, where he's an adequate man-to-man defender in college, but might lack the athleticism and quickness to be an effective defender in the NBA. He sometimes loafs on defense and generally lacks defensive fundamentals. He's shown an ability to quickly improve on offense, so hopefully a good defensive coach (Thibodeau, please?) could make him a better defender. He's not suited for a fast-paced offense that runs the floor, which would take away a lot of the Hornet's strengths with CP3, Collison, and Thornton. And he's a poor post passer and tends to make too many turnovers.

Makeup: This is the biggest question mark for Cousins, but I don't think I'm in any position to pass judgement. I have no insight into his soul, and I have no idea how hard he'll work in the NBA. When I saw him play for Kentucky, I usually thought he seemed lazy and unfocused on the court. Others have seen the same thing, but I certainly thought he improved throughout the year.

Anecdotally, there's cause for concern. Early in the year, John Calipari said he had a terrible attitude during conditioning workouts. Since conditioning is a serious weakness for Cousins, it seems strange that he would refuse to even complete Calipari's conditioning workouts and was told to sit on the sidelines. Calipari said Cousins's attitude improved and he started buying into the conditioning, but spending a top-five pick on a guy who refuses to run liners seems risky.

I'm not sure if the more lax NBA coaching environment will coax previously unseen reserves of focus and determination out of Cousins or if it will cause him to regress. Many scouts think that his lack of mental toughness and maturity makes him a high-risk, high-reward draft pick, something you don't usually see from a top-five pick out of Kentucky.

Overall: If we want to pick a center, we can't do much better than Cousins. Since he's going to require a firm and respected coach to help him mature, I would wait to see what coach we hire before I put him right behind Turner on my draft board. His total dominance of college bodes well, though. He's clearly ready for the NBA and he could very well blossom into a star. He fits a serious need for the Hornets and could pair very nicely with Chris Paul. All we need is a top-three draft pick. That shouldn't be too hard to get, right?