- Tim Keown, Senior writer, ESPN.com
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It appears DeMarcus Cousins is fulfilling the prophecy many made for him before the Sacramento Kings took him with the fifth pick of last year's draft. You know, the one with the competing assessments: 1) dominant physical skills that are constantly in danger of being undone by; 2) lack of both maturity and impulse control.
Hope remains that 1) will overcome 2). Cousins is a 20-year-old going on 13, and when his exuberance exceeds his ability to contain it, bad things happen. This isn't really a surprise; given his history, the surprise would be if a calm and serene Cousins had lasted through a season with a dismal team without turmoil.
And this isn't just about Cousins. It's far bigger than him. He's simply indicative of a too-much-too-soon mentality, where the physical outweighs the emotional and a kid gets shredded publicly for behaving in a way everyone feared he would behave in the first place. And, along the way, the shredding gets justified by the fact that he's making a crazy amount of money that someone gave him precisely because they ignored the emotional and went all-in on the physical.
The latest dust-up happened Saturday night, when Cousins got into a postgame altercation with teammate Donte Greene and was refused a seat on the team plane headed for Phoenix. Cousins was fined and will be back in uniform Tuesday night. It was his fourth reported run-in with either teammates or authority (coaches, referees, the league office) this season.
Now, the easiest way to think about it is to call Cousins a malcontent, a cancer or the second coming of Dennis Rodman/Ron Artest/Chris Washburn. Plenty already have. The message boards are full of condemnations and vitriol and creative ways of spelling words that aren't allowed in the salons of finer public discourse. ("T.hu.g" is a particular favorite.)
Here's a far less popular opinion: Somewhere along the way, the system failed Cousins. It could have been in high school, or even before, but it's clear his physical prowess gave him license to remain immature and occasionally out of control. The system was one never-ending apology for poor behavior, because wherever Cousins has been, he's been good for business.
I know the response: He needs to grow up, and that's nobody's job but his. Not only that, but: He's making millions; he's had every break in the book; without basketball he'd be doing something far less lucrative, and far less public.
And that's precisely why the system is at least partly to blame. Maybe Cousins shouldn't be making millions. He shouldn't have been given every break in the book. There's no doubt he should have been forced -- or at least asked -- to show a level of maturity that exceeds the average 8th-grader before receiving entree into the exalted world of the NBA.
This is nothing new. It's in the NFL and MLB and everywhere money is paid for people to play a sport. It's Milton Bradley and Ryan Leaf and DeShawn Stevenson. But worse than that -- far worse -- this same phenomenon is rampant in the lower levels, among kids who were treated the same way Cousins was treated but didn't have the physical talent or the level of maturity to pull it off. (And yes, Cousins has showed at least a modicum of maturity to reach this level.)
Everyone knew Cousins was a risky bet. For the most part, he was a genial soul during his one year at the University of Kentucky. But everyone from the chancellor to the towel boy knew Cousins was one-and-done with the Wildcats from the moment he stepped on campus. Who was there in Lexington with the emotional commitment to direct Cousins to something more important than the Final Four? It didn't matter, because Cousins was good for business.
Cousins hasn't grown up, but neither have a lot of pro athletes. The beauty of the profession is not having to grow up. There's a problem on both ends of that equation. Some can handle it, others can't. As with any kid, the issue is always consequences. After all, what did Cousins' inconsistent behavior cost him -- two or three spots in the draft?
On Saturday night, Cousins' issue with Greene was simple: Down two with the ball and less than 10 seconds left, Greene inbounded to Tyreke Evans, who tossed up an errant 3-pointer to seal a win for Oklahoma City. Cousins thought he was open and should have been given the ball. When he wasn't, he reacted in a way that reasonable people would consider aberrant.
Obviously, Cousins has a long way to go. Will he get there? It's easy to root against guys like him -- it's become something of a national pastime, it seems -- but if the Kings want to make good on their investment, they'd hire someone to help smooth out the rough patches (understanding he has to embrace that assistance; a similar gesture didn't save Washburn's career). It's the least they can do, and it would have an added benefit: It would be good for business.
Oh, and about Saturday night? Cousins was right. With a defender on his hip and the baseline free, he should have gotten the ball. His response was all wrong, but his basketball sense was all right. He deserves some credit for that.
Somewhere along the way, the system failed DeMarcus Cousins. It could have been in high school, or even before, but it's clear his physical prowess gave him license to remain immature and occasionally out of control.