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Monday, June 21, 2010
DeMarcus Cousins vs. NBA player development

By Henry Abbott



By just about every measure out there (including John Hollinger's, and the private statistical rankings of three NBA teams) Kentucky big man DeMarcus Cousins was the most productive player in the NCAA last year and is the guy who projects as the best NBA player out of this draft class. If the computers were drafting, they'd take Cousins first overall. And, for the record, Hollinger's draft rater has a better track record than the actual draft -- so ignore it at your peril.

What's more: Watch Cousins play! You don't need to trust stats at all. He's not only huge and strong, but he's also super skilled around the hoop. Rebounds that he has no business getting stick to his hands instead of everybody else's. Defenses that overplay his right hand get punished to the left. When the double-team comes, sometimes he shoots over it anyway ... but the ball still goes in more than you'd have any right to expect.

Meanwhile, his critics say he's crazy, fat or both. Maybe so. But it sure hasn't hurt his ability to produce so far.

"The only thing crazy about him," says a person close to him, "is that he can't stop getting double-doubles."

In a dreadful bit of cherry-picking, let me alert you to the kinds of things this player did at Kentucky: 18 points and 18 rebounds in 26 minutes against Louisville; 19 points and 15 rebounds -- he only took eight shots! -- in 26 minutes against Tennessee; 19 and 14 in 30 minutes at Mississippi State; and 16 points (on 10 shots) and 14 rebounds in only 17 minutes in Kentucky's blowout win against Arkansas.

I know this is seen as the draft of Cousins' Kentucky teammate John Wall, and rightly so. But with three days until David Stern starts announcing picks, the player of the moment as far as I'm concerned is Cousins. He is coming to the NBA with all the potential in the world, and the pressure is on the NBA to get this right. In Andy Katz's video above, his college coach, John Calipari, says that Cousins is "probably the most unfinished product in the draft."

In that same story, John Thompson says that "you can calm down a fool better than you can resurrect a corpse."

And that, right there, is what I'm nervous about. A lot of people see this as the pressure being on Cousins to step up his game and produce in the NBA. But there's also a ton of pressure on the team that drafts him to build a relationship that he believes in. What are the chances he'll have a great relationship with his next team? The NBA's track record in connecting to young NBA players is spotty at best.

It's not that teams don't want to have those skills, nor that they don't invest in them. It's just that having the ability to inspire a wide array of people is a rare skill.

Think about teachers. A public school teacher gets every darned kid that walks through the door. Some kids need to have their name said every five minutes to stay engaged. Some kids need someone to stand near them to keep them from daydreaming. Some kids need to be left alone. Some kids need competition. Some kids are really smart but need things explained very clearly. Some kids can't handle criticism, and others thrive on it. And on and on. Nobody has the skills to reach every single different kind of kid, but some amazing people manage to become Picassos of that world, masterfully blending the elements to conjure beauty. Decades of dealing with all those different personalities creates an opportunity to create some of the most masterful teachers in the world, who can handle almost any situation.

Contrast that with whatever we consider to be the most elite school in the country. Tiny classrooms, hand-picked teachers, brilliant kids who love being there. ... At that school, the hard reality is that everybody in the room is lucky to be there. That's your motivation. You screw up enough times, and darn it, they'll just get someone else to take your coveted spot instead.

That second school is a place where teachers really don't have to cajole students the same way. They aren't forced to figure out how to unlock every last tortured soul. They can try for a bit, and then simply move on. The fine skills of coping with the tough kids are a little bit wasted here, where the tough kids either become tolerable or become ex-students.

The NBA is the ritziest school in basketball history, in this analogy. Very few employees of NBA teams see it as their job to inspire young players to get better. They see it as young players' job to already be inspired by the setting. If they can't deal with that reality, off they go to Europe or the D-League or whatever. And fair enough, that ought to work. But very often it doesn't. How many hundreds of amazing talents simply didn't become productive NBA players? Far too many to count!

When it doesn't, I'm not sure shrugging and saying you tried is the same as having the world's best possible player development.

When I interviewed Greg Oden a few weeks ago, I asked him who his NBA mentor was. Player, coach ... anybody he turns to for guidance in the way the NBA works on and off the court. The Blazers have spent all kinds of money keeping gifted staffers around Oden. Assistant coach Bill Bayno spent all of last summer in the Midwest to be with Oden. Even now Oden's with the trainer and strength people every day. And we all love the idea that Marcus Camby or an agent or somebody would take Oden under his wing and show him the ropes.

But Oden said there was nobody. He could not name one person in his life that he really thought of as a day-to-day NBA mentor. That may be no crisis. But it's hard to think one could get from point A to point B in an NBA career as fast as possible without some guidance that you take to heart. And I suspect Oden's situation is typical.

Yes, the NBA is a huge opportunity for a talent like DeMarcus Cousins. Will he squander it? Maybe, maybe not. But as we watch it play out in the years to come, I'm aware that the opportunities flow both ways. Cousins is a huge opportunity for the NBA, too. Will his NBA team make the most of that? It depends whether or not the team he ends up with happens to have a staffer with the gift of connecting with Cousins. I certainly hope they do. And if they don't, and things fall apart, Cousins may not be alone in deserving blame.