The Riddle of DeMarcus Cousins
The question was a simple one.
“Would you draft him?” I was asked.
“Absolutely. He’s the most talented player in this draft.” I responded. “But remember, I’m being asked to evaluate his talent. I don’t have to coach him.”
The previous exchange occurred during an NBA consulting gig I had prior to the 2010 Draft. The player in question was big man DeMarcus Cousins. I watched literally every second he played in college and did the same for all of the other prospective lottery picks.
I wrote an extensive report on the good, the bad and the ugly. Looking back, it’s apparent there wasn’t much I didn’t like about him as a basketball player.
One of my mentors who has coached and recruited in Division I college basketball and worked as a coach and talent evaluator in the NBA once told me, “Write everything you want to say about a player in four or five sentences. If you want to write a huge report for yourself, fine. But most people aren’t going to read all of that. In academia you write these big, wordy essays. Don’t do that B.S. here. Get right to the point and make it clear where you stand.”
In that spirit, here was my conclusion on Cousins written in May of 2010:
“He’s the most talented player in this draft. Probably the physically strongest player in college basketball who can establish post position on anyone and has extremely soft hands. Incredible length and very good skill level for position. Is sometimes lazy defensively and I worry about his ability to stay in shape. Always looks two seconds from doing something crazy on the court. Biggest question: is he coachable? If you want the best talent in this draft, take him.”
The great thing about scouting reports is that they provide documentation that can be referenced again in the future. I’m constantly evaluating my past evaluations to see where I was right and where I was wrong. I try to be brutally honest with myself. And the reality of evaluating talent is that you will be wrong much more than most folks in the business are willing to admit.
With Cousins, I would like to believe that my evaluation was solid. Watching him play for a little over two seasons in the NBA, I believe there’s no question he was the most talented player who emerged from that draft. However, he’s also clearly the most enigmatic.
Later that summer after Cousins was selected by the Sacramento Kings, I was sitting next to an NBA head coach at the Vegas Summer League who asked for my take on the young post player. I repeated the line from my report above: “He always looks two seconds from doing something crazy on the court.”
I didn’t mean this as a pathologizing statement, but rather just a description of what I saw from Cousins on the court. One bad call by a referee or one critical comment from a coach and you could lose him for the rest of the game, or perhaps even for the next few games.
The coach I was sitting next to informed me that he would take the player on his roster who was his best “agitator” and have that player coerce Cousins into taking a swing at him.
Fast forward to today and Cousins has been suspended multiple times for his inability to keep his emotions in check. When Cousins confronted the mild-mannered former player turned Spurs’ broadcaster Sean Elliott after a game on November 9th, it became obvious that he had a fairly substantial issue.
However, he still has the same talent that intrigued so many prior to the draft. This leaves the Kings in a difficult position moving forward. They have a young basketball team with a young coach. Typically, this is not the kind of environment where young, volatile talents flourish. That said, to trade him would be equally silly unless they are able to get at least an equal return on their investment, which seems unlikely at this juncture.
Cousins’ case once again underscores the difficult dilemma faced by NBA front offices in weighing talent and personality. Over the years, it has been very common for general managers to take on guys as reclamation projects. The theory being, if I can get my hands on this guy I can turn him around.
Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.
NBA fans likely remember J.R. Rider. This was a player who was given numerous opportunities to realize his talent and he was unable to do so. Compare his case to one like Rasheed Wallace. Many people forget how negatively Sheed was viewed prior to getting traded to the Pistons and winning a title in Detroit. Interestingly, there are a number of similarities between Cousins and Wallace in terms of their temperamental personalities.
Stephen Jackson is yet another example of a player labeled a “cancer” in one destination while helping a team win a title in another. The list of such players goes on and on.
So should your favorite team consider trading for Cousins? There are certainly a number of prominent theories that would say yes, provided your team meets the prerequisites.
A theory often advanced is that a player like Cousins would fall in line if traded to a veteran team with a veteran coach. In other words, he wouldn’t behave the same way on a team led by a player like Kobe Bryant and coached by someone like Phil Jackson.
Another theory that regularly emerges in situations like these is the “stupidity of youth” theory. People will point out that Cousins is just 22 years of age and simply needs time to mature. This theory actually has neuroscience on its side, as we know the prefrontal cortex of the brain (implicated in impulse control among other things) isn’t fully developed until, on average, age 25 in men.
Others have noted that Cousins may be suffering from some kind of anger management problem or other mental health issue. Perhaps he would benefit from counseling and thus realize his full NBA potential.
These are just a few of the theories, and time simply doesn’t permit discussion of every one.
One thing to be certain about is the NBA is a talent-driven league. As such, you can bet that a number of teams would be interested in Cousins if he were to be placed on the trading block. However, if you look at the history of reclamation projects, they more often fail than succeed.
This underscores the importance of attempting to understand the psychology of players prior to drafting or trading for them. The NBA is moving more and more towards an analytics-based approach to evaluating players. Analytics provide important data that an organization would be foolish to ignore. The question such numbers do not answer though, is how will a player’s personality fit in with those of his teammates and coaches?
In truth, there is no assessment or equation that will ever completely answer this. Gathering as much psychological data as possible is essential. The next step in the process is honestly looking at the culture of your team and seeing whether or not that player fits.
The Oklahoma City Thunder stand out as a franchise that have worked very hard to establish a “culture” and will not pursue a player who does not fit. Some teams feature a different approach where the goal is to try to acquire as much talent as possible. Both approaches have been successful in the past.
What this means is that Cousins very well could help a team win a title in the future. However, he could just as easily implode.
The question that has to be asked is can your franchise absorb the risk of the trade not working out? In other words, if a team already has some talent and/or doesn’t have to give up crucial pieces in the process of acquiring Cousins, perhaps it is worth the risk. Even better, if the players still on the roster are veteran players and the head coach is a guy who has a track record of success and commands instant respect.
The rumored deal to the Celtics would be an interesting one. It’s hard to imagine Kevin Garnett letting Cousins get away with what he has gotten away with in Sacramento. Moreover, Doc Rivers fits the profile of a guy who would have a chance at effectively managing Cousins with his mixture of discipline, accountability and fatherly love.
Still, even a trade like the one mentioned above is not guaranteed to be successful. Any endeavor that involves getting human beings to work together in close quarters can often be a tricky riddle to solve. But if I have learned anything during my decade or so around the NBA it’s that there will always be teams that take a risk on talent, for better or worse.
It’s your move, Sacramento.
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.