There Is No Scrap Impartial
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I think we finally have our Psychological Man. His name, much to my utter surprise and possible chagrin, is DeMarcus Cousins.
As long as this site's been live, we've harped on player psychology. Not "what is a point guard thinking in the clutch", but as best we can, tried to determine what makes these dudes tick. Especially when, as it so very not the case in other sports, uniform execution simply won't do, and the decisions players make—their respective styles, if you will—can't help but reveal something about them as people. It may be only a thin breach here and there, through which little light is admitted, or gaping blast of individuality, but either way there's humanity in them there ball players.
Somewhere out there, a unified theory of FreeDarko presents itself in the heavens. For now, I'd go so far as to say that style and personality are the strong and weak force of our NBA cosmology, which is why no amount of boring-ass critiques will make me lose interest in Kobe Bryant. It's also why Gilbert Arenas was for so very long our patron saint. His entire public existence depended on either riding or struggling against that interpretive undercurrent "quirk". With the locker room incident and FINGER GUNZ, it went so far as to suggest that, in fact, he had been (figuratively, duh) swept out to sea. At some point, the joke ceases to be on the rest of the world, and out-there behavior becomes either sad or self-destructive.
That's also what happened with Michael Beasley, whatever happened with Beasley. He entered the draft speaking with uncommon candor—which in retrospect, turned out to be a "don't let me do this" cry for someone to keep him in school. At the time, though, it really seemed as if teams were being forced to confront the possibility that players could be weird, and yet still thrive. Arenas was a high-wire act, someone who played up his shtick for commercial gains and then found himself seemingly fall victim to his own act. Beasley entered the league not playing pranks and committing absurd gestures, but simply refusing to make sense. Again, at the moment it's hard to say he was taking a stand for anything but his own immaturity. And I mean that in the most light, sympathetic way possible.
All of which brings us to DeMarcus Cousins. You all know the story by now. Cousins was, all the way back to his high school days, branded "a problem". He didn't have Arenas's charm or Beasley's enigmatic qualities. DeMarcus Cousins had, as they say, an attitude. He was not a high-character guy. Supposedly, he fought with coaches, loafed, and wouldn't stay in shape. Whatever had happened at Kentucky, where he proved so dominant that John Wall was often relegated to a supporting role, was fool's gold compared to the monster he would become as a pro. It didn't help that, in many ways, the most apt comparisons the pros offered were Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry, and reaching back a ways, Derrick Coleman (that one more than ever after Vegas, but I'm getting ahead here).
I was staunchly anti-Cousins, though mostly owing to the fact that I thought his college career was a mirage and his height not what it turned out to be. When the whole thing got all weird and paternalistic, I realized which side justice smiled upon. Cousins was trapped in a strange rhetorical bind best described as "worst available". He was the bad seed of the draft, the high-risk, high-reward guy who got all the ink, and of course. Not every draft class is so lucky as to have one. But once anyone can be stuck in the "bad kid" or "problem" category, they will catch hell up until they prove otherwise.
Beasley, incidentally, saw his stock of evil rise (fall?) as the draft approach. Draw your own cause and effect conclusions here, but Cousins loomed larger and larger as a talent and became more and more of a potential thug creature. Don't blame FreeDarko; we dispatched Joey Litman to meet Cousins and observe him acting like the kid he was. Beasley had said "I'm a kid", but for him that opened the door out onto all sorts of weirdness. Cousins really just came off as sweet, likable, and hardly the kind of ass who would warrant such premature nay-saying.
Fast forward to the Vegas league, where Cousins's debut was awaited almost as eagerly as Wall's. When he proved even more of a force (granted, Wall had very little to prove), and flashed skills and awareness that had once been mere fluff in the mouths of his biggest supporters, Cousins instantly became the second-biggest star among the rookies. That attitude we heard so much about? Damn right it's there. But it's fire, intensity, and the desire to flat-out destroy his opponent, especially other big men. It's exactly what so many other bigs are lacking, and why they end up a very different kind of bust. Cousins rages because he cares. It's that simple. To say that his personality can be rough or stubborn at times is to say that he's a gamer. Attitude on the court, if it's this kind of edge and determination, is the exact opposite of what off-court attitude will sow.
And it's not like Cousins is lacking in self-awareness, something we can debate all day about Arenas or Beasley. The Timberwolves, of course, tried to throw him off by antagonizing and harassing him, expecting him to crack and show the lunatic no one wanted to draft (including them). Except as soon as Cousins caught on, he disengaged himself and opened scoffed at the tactic. Does this sound like a wayward brat to you?
All of which brings us back to psychology. Cousins did, indeed, possess many of qualities NBA scouts feared in him. Except he possessed them in a way that manifested itself primarily on the court, where they were a decidedly good thing. Differentiating between on and off-court personality, as well as mapping out their intersection, has never been more important than now. What's more, the "good kid"/"problem" binary has revealed itself to be, if not a farce, at least utterly simplistic, the kind of clap-trap that no journalist—much less a scout—should bother to hang his hat on.
Cousins might seem to call into question whatever it is that Arenas and Beasley represented. On the contrary, in his contradictions, he make more urgent than ever the need to develop a more psychologically sophisticated approach to assessing prospects. Arenas asserted the right to be kooky, unpredictable, and obsessive; Beasley, incoherent, compelling and loud. That was a fair description of each at their best, and if their stories ended today, each would serve as a cautionary tale against this kind of player. Cousins, though, makes the case for the development of something new, something that might actually better equip a team for an Arenas or Beasley—that is, anyone other than an outright bust.
Earlier today, Ziller wrote about Rashad McCants. McCants, it seems, was Cousins before Cousins, and had the bad luck to not be born very tall. No one has yet been able to tell me exactly what it is that makes McCants so horrible and unemployable. Maybe he's not the best defender, and there have been some confounding incidents with scheduling and contracts (like TZ's post today). But McCants himself believes he had been blacklisted, and I'm inclined to believe he's not far off. McCants deserves a chance to succeed based on his abilities, not some shit-poor conception of what makes for good and bad soldiers in a mechanized world that never really existed in the first place.