- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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DeMarcus Cousins is an enigma, arguably one of the most talented players in the NBA draft but easily the one with the most questions.
Catch Cousins before a Kentucky game and he can be loose, often joking around with teammates. During a game, he can be a loose cannon.
His talent is obvious. On a team that could have as many as five first-round picks in the 2010 NBA draft, Cousins was named SEC freshman of the year after averaging 15.1 points (second on team) and 9.8 rebounds (second in the conference) a game.
But his quick trigger made him an easy target during the season. He claims he was kneed in the opening minute of a January game against in-state rival Louisville. But it was his forearm to Cardinals forward Jared Swopshire that made headlines after a 71-62 win, not his game-high 18 points or career-high 18 rebounds. Prior to a regular-season game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., his phone number was obtained by Bulldog supporters who apparently left racist messages on his voice mail. Cousins responded by mocking the Mississippi State fans, following up a dunk toward the end of a six-point victory by pretending to put a phone to his ear.
His behavior was simply unpredictable. He was engaging at times with the media, wearing a goofy getup to a postgame media session that consisted of Urkel glasses and a Davey Crockett hat. But he also challenged Kentucky coach John Calipari vividly during the season.
"If you want something easier, then take somebody else," Calipari said. "If you want to take on this challenge and make him one of the best players in the NBA, then he has it all. He's got the size, the mind, and he's smart enough to remember plays and make adjustments. He's one of the most intelligent players I've ever coached.''
The questions about Cousins' character date back to high school. Midway through his sophomore season at Erwin High School in Birmingham, Ala., Cousins got into a physical altercation with a faculty member on a bus after a game. He was suspended for the rest of the season.
"I was 16 years old and I had a grown man coming at me with his hands,'' Cousins said after a break from working out for the draft in early May at a Boys and Girls Club in southeast Washington, D.C. "I mean, there's nowhere to run, so I'm going to defend myself. That's what I did.''
Cousins hasn't been able to shake his reputation since then. His mother, Monique, wanted to give him a fresh start, so she moved back to her hometown of Mobile for his junior and senior seasons. Of course, controversy followed when there were questions about how he landed at LeFlore High School. He was held out for nine games during an investigation before he was cleared. He finished his career as a McDonald's All-America.
"It was nothing more than a kid that just needed to grow up,'' LeFlore coach Otis Hughley said. "He was misunderstood. I bought into it at first too, but when I met him and met his mom, then it was over. I had envisioned all these stories but that's not who he was. He didn't smoke. He didn't drink. He still can't drive.''
Cousins couldn't shake the labels being put on him; something always seemed askew. He was all set to sign with UAB along with Mike Davis, but he first wanted assurances that he would be set free from his national letter of intent if Davis didn't stay. The school wouldn't agree, and Cousins ultimately landed with Calipari and Kentucky.
After helping to lead Kentucky to SEC regular-season and conference tournament championships, he decided to forego his remaining three seasons of eligibility to enter the draft, in which he could go as high as No. 2 overall.
The Wizards are expected to take Cousins' teammate, John Wall, at No. 1 and the Sixers, who pick second, are likely to shy away from Cousins in favor for a sure thing, such as Georgia Tech big man Derrick Favors or Ohio State guard Evan Turner, the national player of the year. That means the Cousins Watch begins at No. 3 New Jersey.
If the Nets pass, the No. 4 Timberwolves will likely do the same, since he didn't work out for them and has sent negative vibes about playing in Minnesota. He performed well in a workout for Sacramento, which picks at No. 5, and declined to go to No. 6 Golden State. His desired location is Detroit (No. 7), especially after spending two secretive days with the Pistons two weeks ago, but Detroit knows it probably will have to trade up to get him.
Passing on him, however, may only further motivate him.
"If you pass him in the draft, he will never forget,'' Calipari said. "When he's 35 years old and still playing and he knows you passed on him, he will be trying to get 50 on you -- that's his mentality.''
But it's the other part of his mentality and personality, the one that has led some to deem him "uncoachable," that could scare teams away.
Cousins is aware of the perception.
"'He's a time bomb. He's a thug. He'll be locked up in a few years,' just because of the way I play basketball," Cousins said is what people think of him.
But he doesn't agree with it. He said his aggressiveness on the court is spun into a larger story.
'He's a time bomb. He's a thug. He'll be locked up in a few years,' just because of the way I play basketball.
”-- DeMarcus Cousins on what
people think of him
"People saw us go back and forth and they thought we were contentious,'' Calipari said. "He was like a son. He needs guidance. He's not one to go on his own.''
"I mean, I compete, and if I don't understand things I ask questions, which is why you saw a lot of back and forth between me and Cal,'' Cousins said.
Watching Cousins work out on the basketball court, run through grueling agility training, leap over hurdles 48 inches high, throw medicine balls, step into the boxing ring and hear him speak, it's hard not to see the other side.
He is still just 19 years old. You can't forget that. Even he can't.
Cousins said that he's still a child. But he was treated like a man for years because he was larger than every other kid.
"You look at his body language and he acts like he's mean, when he's actually witty,'' Calipari said. "He's 19. He's more like 17. But he's 19. He's not 25 but his upside is enormous.
"I keep telling everybody that he's not there yet and with him you probably have the most unfinished product in the draft. You have to create a relationship with him, push him and drive him. He's going to have to believe in you and you have to hold him accountable. If you do that, you'll end up with a player that you'll say, 'Wow!'''
Another concern for NBA teams is Cousins' weight.
When he was in Chicago in late May for the pre-draft camp, Cousins thought he performed well. But he weighed in at 291 pounds, 11 pounds more than his previously stated weight, and had a body fat that measured at more than 16 percent, the second highest mark in the camp.
"His body fat needs to be down around the 10, 11, 12 range,'' Calipari said. "I say his playing weight, especially if he's a 4 or 5, is probably 275 or 270.''
To get into shape, his agent, John Grieg, sent Cousins to D.C. trainer Keith Williams, who has worked with the likes of Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Carmelo Anthony.
Williams designed the workout plan that included agility drills on the court, such as bouncing a tennis ball and a basketball at the same time.
"I don't think he has had to work this hard because he's normally bigger than everybody,'' Williams said.
Hall of Fame coach John Thompson Jr., who coached All-Star centers Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning at Georgetown, has been taken by Cousins' game and doesn't buy that he can't get into shape.
"Is that an unreasonable expectation for a man that makes that kind of money,'' Thompson said. "I can tell him to get real skinny fast -- lose that damn job and that money he got, he'll get thin in a minute.''
Thompson said he thought Calipari did a "nice job" managing Cousins, and that if it were up to him, he wouldn't try to temper Cousins so much in the pros.
"I like players that have a little edge so I'm a little partial,'' Thompson said. "You can calm down a fool before you can resurrect a corpse.''
What Cousins does need, Thompson said, is a coach that he isn't threatened by.
"You need someone that is strong enough to deal with his personality because he's one of the few guys that is comfortable in the post, banging in the post,'' Thompson said.
Thompson likened playing down low in basketball to playing in the trenches in football. It's not a position that someone puts their hand in the dirt and exchange pleasantries with opposing players, he said. NBA veterans such as the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett will "tease him, push him and see what he does,'' Thompson said.
Calipari had a similar message last season.
"He's very intelligent,'' Calipari said. "But we had to explain to him that the guy can't guard you so he's going to come down and pull your shirt out of your shorts, he's going to pinch your butt, elbow you in the back and try to get your goat. But you've got to be intelligent and not lose your mind. If you're smarter than him then you'll try to score 30 on him and rebound every ball.''
"If you can't control [yourself] then you're called a head case,'' Thompson said. "If you can control it, and the guy is productive, then you're called a superstar. There's a vast difference.''
Williams was convinced that once Cousins got to the interview stage of the draft he would change the perceptions surrounding him, the one that has elicted comparisons to draft bust Benoit Benjamin.
He did just that.
One general manager told ESPN.com early in the process that he wouldn't draft Cousins without a psychologist. But after interviewing him in Chicago, he changed his tune.
Cousins, though, still has to work on his media training. He was surly when he faced his first stint of national writers and broadcasters in Chicago, telling them were to assign blame for the misperceptions.
"I told him to smile more, have a bounce to you,'' Calipari said. "He said, 'Coach I am who I am."
That's what teams will have to wrestle with on Thursday.
He's an enigmatic young man who can produce better than any big man in this draft. He also might be the one player who needs the most managing to ensure the unlimited potential isn't derailed.
But Cousins has one clear message to whoever selects him.
"I'm going to tell them they made the right decision,'' Cousins said. "They chose the right player, they chose the best player in the draft.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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6hMatt Walks, ESPN.com