DeMarcus Cousins is about to enter his fourth season in the league, and although he's been incrementally improving with each passing season, he's still not where he needs to be on either end of the floor.
A big man as skilled as Cousins shouldn't have trouble cracking 50 percent shooting. But he has yet to do so since arriving in Sacramento.
And an athlete of his mobility, agility and dexterity shouldn't have such trouble defending against pick-and-rolls or providing weak-side help. And he certainly shouldn't be fouling as often as Cousins does.
Many of Cousins' issues on both ends of the floor seem to be the result of laziness. Take this possession against the San Antonio Spurs, for example.
Cousins walks his way up the left side of the floor, so the initial entry pass from Isaiah Thomas doesn't come until there are about 13 or 14 seconds on the shot clock. After throwing a post-entry pass to John Salmons, Cousins just stands outside the three-point line and watches.
This allows his man, Tiago Splitter, to slide way down and double Salmons in the post, cramping Sacramento's spacing. Cousins is barely a threat from mid-range; he shouldn't be spacing the floor outside the three-point line. He's useless out there.
Once Cousins gets the ball back from Salmons, he dribbles directly into traffic with his head down, not scanning the floor for open teammates until he picks up his dribble and leaps into the air. He manages to get the ball to Tyreke Evans on the wing, but after setting Evans a screen, Cousins doesn't roll or pop quickly. Instead, he charts a noncommittal path that fails to give Evans an angle.
Evans is forced to throw an in-between pass that winds up going out of bounds.
This lack of urgency on Cousins' part also carries over to the defensive end, where he can often be seen swiping at opposing drivers and post players, like in the first play of the video above.
It doesn't help that Cousins is also often out of position on defense, as he is in the second video. Whether playing too close to or too far away from his man, Cousins isn't in the right spot at the right time. This happens far too often. His quickness and athleticism sometimes help him make up ground, but Cousins and the Kings would be better off if he improved his defensive positioning.
Some of these defensive lapses can be traced to personnel and coaching issues.
In his three NBA seasons, Cousins has played with defenders who are barely passable (or worse). He's also been coached by Paul Westphal and Keith Smart, two coaches not exactly known for implementing stingy defensive systems. Still, though, a player as athletic and instinctual as Cousins should be able to execute his own assignments within a defined set of defensive rules.
Cousins' issues are most apparent when defending against pick-and-rolls. Take a look at Cousins' positioning on this Dwyane Wade-Udonis Haslem pick-and-roll.
Yes, Salmons bails on his help responsibilities, but Cousins is just as culpable here for jumping way too far out on a poor outside shooter who is clearly dribbling away from the screen.
The second video above shows a related, if not exactly parallel, issue. Cousins hangs with Mike Conley a beat (or two) too long, not leaving until after Conley has already picked up his dribble and begun to throw a pass to Darrell Arthur, Cousins' actual mark on the play.
In addition to exhibiting bouts of laziness and poor positioning, Cousins sometimes struggles with overaggressiveness, which has led to a negative assist-to-turnover ratio in each of his three seasons. Dribbling into crowds with his head down, telegraphing passes, barreling into defenders, poor footwork—it's all there if you watch enough tape on Cousins.
Of course, Cousins still has massive potential despite all these flaws. For one thing, he's one of the league's truly elite rebounders. Cousins' total rebound percentage of 18.5 ranks fifth in the league among players who have averaged at least 50 starts per year over the three seasons he's been in the NBA.
Cousins has ranked in the league's top 10 in and-1s in each of the last two seasons, and he drew the fourth-most fouls per 36 minutes behind only Dwight Howard, Tyler Hansbrough (????) and James Harden this past season, after coming in third in fouls drawn per 36 during the lockout-shorted 2011-12 campaign.
While he hasn't yet become a hyper-efficient scorer, Cousins has improved his field-goal percentage with each successive year in the league, a welcome result of allowing his teammates to set up a larger percentage of his scoring opportunities. Only 37.6 percent of Cousins' baskets as a rookie were of the assisted variety; by last year, that percentage had shot up to 47.7.
The addition of point guard Greivis Vasquez should help Cousins progress even more in the 2013-14 season (and possibly beyond, if Vasquez stays in Sacramento). Cousins' most frequent pick-and-roll partners for his first few seasons in the league were Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas, not exactly the world's greatest or most willing pick-and-passers.
Meanwhile, Vasquez was the league's leading assist man last season, and he dished 155 dimes on pick-and-rolls alone, per video tracking from mySynergySports. By way of reference, Cousins only attempted 156 shots out of the pick-and-roll last year, according to Synergy.
Vasquez isn't much of a threat to turn the corner and get into the lane, but he's made himself into an average outside shooter, and his height and vision allow him to make passes other point guards don't necessarily see.
Cousins should be a primary beneficiary of Vasquez's prowess in this particular area.
The addition of rookie Ben McLemore should help space the court on the offensive end, while Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should provide much-needed perimeter defense. With former Golden State Warriors assistant Michael Malone now coaching the Kings, a more strictly defined defensive system should help Cousins overcome some of his weaknesses on that end of the court.
Cousins is still young, and it's still early enough in his career that there's plenty of time for him to put it all together. The potential is there for him to be one of the best big men in the league. Whether or not he fulfills it will depend at least in part on a number of external factors (teammates, coaching, etc.), but the heavy lifting will have to be done by Cousins himself.