DeMarcus Cousins: a 'weighty' issue
Kentucky product has the skills, but there are questions about his fitness and body fat.
In 1995, I was kneeling next to Allan Houston, getting quotes about Pistons rookie Grant Hill, when a huge shadow came across both of us like a slow-moving cloud. I thought the lights were going out until I realized it was just Oliver Miller walking by.
"The Big O," as he was called then, had his jersey off and I swear he looked like a shiny mudslide with legs.
"I can't believe that dude is a professional athlete," I told my editor later. "I would be surprised if he's on the team next year."
That encounter is the reason I have concerns now about DeMarcus Cousins, a potential top-5 pick in June who is, like Miller, is a bit on the chunky side.
Miller, to finish the story, was left unprotected in the 1995 expansion draft by the Pistons and taken by Toronto. After one season, the Raptors let the 300-pounder walk as a free agent to Dallas, which waived him before the year ended because of his ballooning weight. Since then, he's bounced around the NBA (back to Toronto, four games in Sacramento, back to the Suns -- who drafted him out of Arkansas in 1992 -- and Minnesota) and the globe. His most recent stop was the Lawton-Fort Sill Cavalry in the Premier Basketball League, where he was a backup center this season.
So what does Miller, an NBA washout with a weight problem, tell us about a 2010 lottery pick?
Miller's poor handle on his weight should not have been a surprise considering he reported at the 1992 pre-draft camp with 22 percent body fat, one of the highest percentages in NBA history. Cousins' body-fat percentage at 16.4 is lower than Miller's rookie number; but nevertheless, the ex-Kentucky center is also among the fattest prospects ever to enter the draft (though not as fat as another 2010 draft hopeful, Texas ' Dexter Pittman, whose body fat was recorded at 20.8 percent at the combine in Chicago recently).
They are not the same player -- Cousins is considerably quicker and more polished offensively than Miller was -- but it's impossible to ignore the precedent. Of the 50 players with the highest body fat percentage heading into the draft over the last couple of decades (DraftExpress.com has a sortable list), only one, Shaquille O'Neal, turned into a perennial All-Star. The remaining 49 have one All-Star appearance among them (the Clippers' Chris Kaman), and hardly came close to achieving what Cousins, the 12th-fattest guy on the DraftExpress.com list, is being projected to do.
Without question, Cousins possesses the skill set; but given the history of similar players, is he worth the risk? Seriously, if a player shows up chubby as a 19-year-old looking for work, what's going to happen at 21 when he's gainfully employed? Consider that at 292 pounds, Cousins showed up in Chicago more than 20 pounds heavier than his listed playing weight at Kentucky. Or that he's about two inches shorter than Shaq, who had 12.2 percent body fat as a rook. Or that Kansas' Cole Aldrich, the next highest rated big man on this year's list, has about half the body fat.
It's doubtful Aldrich will need to be doubled in the post much. But it's also doubtful he will double in size.
"Everyone's body works differently," said one league strength and conditioning coach who asked not to be named. "Some athletes can carry a higher percentage of body fat and still perform at a high level while others need to be more careful and maintain lower percentages."
But there is no test that determines which player can and which player can't, making selecting a guy with a high body fat percentage like Cousins tricky. To his credit, Cousins has been touting a new diet and claims to be in the best shape of his life. He also said reports that he is immature and lazy are simply not true. All of this is good to hear.
But I remember hearing similar talk from Eddy Curry, another offensively gifted player with a bit of baby fat. Since Curry was a rookie, controlling his weight has been an issue; and while the 7-footer is listed at 295 pounds, most insiders will tell you he's likely not been that light since high school. Entering the 2009-10 season, Curry reportedly had lost more than 40 pounds but was still not fit enough to play in Mike D'Antoni's uptempo system with the Knicks. He's battled calf injuries and has appeared in a total of 10 games in two years.
"It's not a deal breaker, but it is certainly something to look at carefully," said Chatty Hill, the strength and conditioning coach for the Atlanta Hawks. "If you have a guy who is young and not from a top program, then you figure he just didn't have the right nutrition and program. But if you have a senior at a top program, then you start to question their work ethic. You talk to their coach and conditioning guy and figure out if it's a case of a guy who is a hard worker with bad genetics or a guy who is not a hard worker.
"But the first question is whether or not a guy can play. His fitness is something you can work on once you get him."
No doubt, Cousins can play; he averaged 15.3 points and 10.1 rebounds for the Wildcats in his one season. Whether he can adapt his fitness and nutrition to the requirements of the pro game remains to be seen. The cautionary examples include Curry and Miller, whom the Suns drafted with the 22nd pick of the first round in 1992 but let go two years later. The Washington Bullets ignored John "Hot Plate" Williams' weight issues (and nickname) and drafted him 12th overall in 1986 instead of fitter players such as Mark Price, Dennis Rodman and Jeff Hornacek, all of whom became eventual All-Stars.
Rumor has it my favorite team, Detroit, is considering moving up in the draft to try to take Cousins. It makes sense considering the franchise hasn't had a consistent low post threat sense James "Buddha" Edwards left for the Clippers in 1991. (Edwards got his nickname because of his Fu Manchu mustache, not because of his gut.) Needless to say, I'm nervous.
"An overweight talented prospect might be a good bet as long as you can get him to lose weight," said Dr. Gary Hunter, a professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine. "The primary danger of drafting an overweight athlete is that he may not have the ability to control his weight and not lose the needed pounds, or even worse, gain more weight."
Well, that's comforting. Not.
"Look, life isn't fair," said Virginia Tech's Dr. Janet Walberg, also an ACSM fellow. "There are people who can eat whatever they want and not gain a pound and people who have to watch every single bite. For athletes, it's no different. Ultimately, it's about the athlete's mentality. If he's willing to put in the work and stick with a healthy diet, he may not ever be the leanest guy on the team but he can at least keep it together to have a good career. But there's no getting around the more fit you are, the better you will perform."
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.