Coming into the 2010 NBA Draft, practically anyone who relied on a statistical system for projecting NBA players had DeMarcus Cousins rated as the best player in the draft, and that’s not surprising given his gaudy college numbers: 58% TS%, 24.5 points per 40 pace adjusted, 15.9 rebounds per 40 pace adjusted, 0.73 FTA/FGA, etc. What stats don’t take into account, however, is players who are forced to (or in this case, choose to) make role changes once they reach the NBA, and anyone who scouted Cousins closely (especially dating back to high school) could’ve told you there’s a good chance he would make some stylistic changes to his offensive game in the pros. Based on his seven-game preseason sample, it looks like that’s exactly what has happened, and it isn’t for the better.
In the NCAA, DeMarcus Cousins was a bruising post player who physically overpowered everyone he faced, spending virtually all of his time operating in the painted area on the offensive end, leading him to post absurd rates of pulling in offensive rebound and getting to the free-throw line. In the pros, he still has a size and strength advantage against most centers, but if preseason is any indication, he’s already shying away from making consistent use of those skills, reverting back to the lackadaisical perimeter style he was known for in high school.
Thus far in the preseason, according to Synergy Sports Technology, Cousins has attempted 20 jump shots compared to 39 shots at the basket, which at first glance appears to be a pretty good ratio. Comparing it to what he did last season at Kentucky, however, it’s quite the fall off, as Cousins attempted 24 jump shots compared to 170 shots at the basket in his time there! Further, Cousins’ post efficiency has fallen off considerably, down to 0.77 points per possession from 0.93. On the whole, Cousins’ PPP in preseason was 0.83 on all possessions, compared to 1.00 in college.
Operating with a seven-game sample size against preseason competition, it’s hard to put too much confidence in the efficiency numbers, while there is some fall-off to be expected going against much higher levels of competition and having to adjust to the new game regardless. On the other hand, the shot selection tendencies are concerning, as that is largely a matter of choice, and watching the tape confirms reason for concern.
To his credit, on the 20 jump shots he took in preseason, Cousins scored 23 points, which is very good efficiency, but even if he maintains that in the long-term, he’s doing his team a disservice by spending so much time away from the basket, which takes away his two greatest strengths: the ability to draw fouls and his dominance on the offensive glass. Indeed, his FTA/FGA was a pedestrian 0.40 in the preseason, nearly half what it was in college, while his offensive rebounds per 40 dropped from 6.9 to 4.8. Another effect of his increased reliance on the perimeter game is his turnover rate rising from 0.15 per possession to 0.17, likely to rise even more if he keeps up this style in the pros, where regular season defense will be much stouter.
Watching his preseason games, Cousins isn’t working nearly as hard at establishing deep post possession, and when he does get the ball he’s relying far more frequently on finesse moves like turnaround jumpers from 10 feet out as opposed to trying to back his man down and get to the rim or draw the foul. His spot-up jumper has been falling frequently, and to his credit he hasn’t completely devolved into thinking he’s capable of taking jump shots off the dribble, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he did, as he did it frequently in high school.
Cousins’ face-up game has been a bit of a double-edged sword in preseason, as on one hand he is more agile than most centers he faces while at the same time having a size, strength, and length advantage, which makes him extremely deadly when he turns in for one-dribble drives out of the mid and high post. While Cousins has taken advantage of this thus far, he doesn’t realize this doesn’t work as well when he is operating off the wing as opposed to in the post, as he doesn’t have the ball-handling or change of direction ability to take his man off the dribble consistently from that far out, something that will lead to many turnovers.
As for other areas, you can already see minor indications of Cousins’ defensive rotations and running of the floor falling off, with him taking off plays and not staying completely involved on that end of the floor, and it’s something that could become even more concerning as the season wears on and the Kings inevitably rack up the losses. At Kentucky, Cousins had a demanding coach who draws a ton of respect, excellent leaders around him in John Wall and Patrick Patterson, was winning every game, and was playing for an NBA contract, four motivating factors that certainly helped keep him in line. With all of those things gone and 3.4million guaranteed in his pocket this season, what will he do when things start going awry?
With Samuel Dalembert ailing with a sore thigh early in the season, minutes will be readily available for Cousins, and the Kings have shown they will force feed minutes and possessions to their young players regardless of performance, so he should have plenty of opportunities to disprove the many concerns around his game (and plenty of opportunities to score lots of points, regardless of possession efficiency).
Things didn’t get off to a good start in preseason, but ultimately it’s just a seven-game sample of largely garbage time and the results don’t mean a thing, so this could easily have been a minor aberration that is quickly put behind him when his season tips off tonight. Given the mounting concerns around his game coming into the draft, however, these developments obviously aren’t encouraging, and if Cousins wants to live up to his potential in the NBA, he will need to remember why he was so highly regarded as a prospect and why he dominated statistically in college, as if he gets away from those things, things could derail rather quickly.