DeMarcus Cousins came onto the NBA scene a couple years ago and surprised many of us with his versatility. Coming out of Kentucky, John Calipari had used DeMarcus almost exclusively in the low post, and for good reason. Cousins was a monster down there in college. He was too big, too skilled and had a great set-up man in John Wall feeding him the ball. He scored 15.1 points on 55.8% from the field in just 23.5 minutes per game.
When DeMarcus came to the NBA however, he was allowed a lot more freedom, and immediately used it to show that he was much more than a low post guy. In particular, he began to shoot more jumpers. A LOT more. Mid-range jumpers, long jumpers, spin-and-fade jumpers, DeMarcus shot them all and then some. When he did park down low and attack the basket, he met with much less success than he did in college, as NBA defenders are much bigger, stronger and experienced. The end of year results were not pretty from an efficiency standpoint, as DeMarcus shot just 43.0% from the field with a True Shooting Percentage of .484.
DeMarcus also liked to show off his passing and playmaking skills, and while they were impressive, it also led to a very high turnover rate. Combined with his inefficiency from the floor and team-high usage rate, DeMarcus would do something bad just about as often as something good.
Things got a bit better in his Sophomore year despite a rough start. DeMarcus was able to increase his Field Goal Percentage to 44.8%, a nice improvement but still poor for a big man. He got better as the year progressed though, and in 14 games in April he scored 19.8 points per game on 47.3% from the field. Despite playing just 30 minutes a game, he still managed to average 11 rebounds on the year. New big man coach Clifford Ray seemed to have a real impact on the way DeMarcus played, and his improved conditioning also helped. We saw glimpses of the DeMarcus Cousins that could not just be one of the best big men in the NBA, but one of the best players.
But can DeMarcus get there if he continues to be inefficient from the field? Is there historical evidence of other big men who began inefficiently and then became successes? How did they do it?
To find this out, I used Basketball-Reference.com's excellent Play Index to search for Forward/Centers who averaged 18 points or more per game while shooting under 45% from the field. I also narrowed down the search criteria by only searching only since 1985. Because DeMarcus is listed as a Forward and not a Center or Forward-Center in Bball-Ref's database, there are a lot of SFs on the list that I ignored for the sake of this post.
Some of the names are very interesting, and from the Kings own past. Shareef Abdur-Rahim was the leading scorer on a terrible Grizzlies team, scoring 23.0 points per game in the 1998-99 lockout shortened season, but on just 43.2% from the field. His team won just 8 games that year. He had been much more efficient in the prior year at 48.5%, so I'm going to chalk up this year as an outlier due to the lockout. Besides, Abdur-Rahim never really became the Franchise Big Man he was once thought to be.
Another interesting name is Derrick Coleman. Coleman was an oft-used comparison for DeMarcus Cousins around draft time. Coleman was taken 1st overall by the Nets in 1990 and never fully realized his potential, opting instead to coast along on his talent. He chose to simply be good instead of striving to be great, and once he lost some of the physical gifts that made him good, his career ended up taking a turn for the worse. Coleman is perhaps the worst case scenario for DeMarcus, and even Coleman started out much more efficiently than Cousins, shooting 50+% from the field his sophomore year (his efficiency began to plummet from then on though).
Kevin Love made the list for his shooting performance this year, but that's a bit misleading considering how many threes Love shoots and the good clip that he hits them at. Cousins doesn't shoot threes (often) and so while their Field Goal Percentages are similar, Love boasts a much higher True Shooting Percentage, one that would have landed him in second place on the Kings.
Two other names stick out on the list. Antoine Walker was also a skilled big man from the University of Kentucky who came into the NBA and quickly became a good scorer. However, Walker had a penchant to shoot threes, and a lot of them, despite the fact that he only would hit about a third of them. Walker was also a dissimilar player to Cousins in that he was more of a stretch four than a power player like DeMarcus, so I don't really like the comparison much anyway.
One comparison that I do like (in terms of play style) is Zach Randolph. Randolph grew into his game at an early age in Portland, becoming one of the best young bigs in the game while dealing with attitude issues and a bad team. Sound familiar? Randolph eventually became too much of a problem for Portland to deal with, so they shipped him out for pennies on the dollar (Otherwise known as Channing Frye and Steve Francis' contract). He bounced around a couple more times before finally settling down and becoming the focal point of a very good Memphis Grizzlies team. This is my biggest fear with DeMarcus; that he eventually develops into the awesome player we all know he can be, but he does so on another team because he became too much to handle in Sacramento.
Right now, DeMarcus Cousins has the mantle of franchise centerpiece, but without hard work that can easily change. Take a look at Tyreke Evans' fall from grace for example. DeMarcus made big, huuuge strides in his game this season, but he cannot afford to stagnate. This league is his for the taking if he wants it, but to get to that point, he needs to refine his game (on both ends of the court) and work on getting his conditioning to the point where he doesn't disappear on the second night of back-to-backs.
Can DeMarcus get there? That's up to him.