LAS VEGAS - This past week, Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins completed his third straight summer in the pool of players competing for one of 12 roster spots to represent their country with USA Basketball.
The Kings' 23-year-old talented big-man was moved to the Men's National Team roster after serving the last two years with the Select Team. This following his stellar fourth NBA season in Sacramento, where he averaged 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
His numbers worthy enough for an All-Star selection, but the success of the team, which finished the season with a dismal 28-54 overall record, coupled with him still in the process of repairing a rocky reputation throughout the league, destroyed most opinions of his worthiness.
With the All-Star snub behind him, he turned his focus to improving his conditioning for Team USA, as well as next year's Kings season, where the team will look to push the tempo. Immediately following the season, Cousins began working on his conditioning with a heavy focus on running the floor.
USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski immediately noticed the drive from Cousins in the first day of camp, in both his desire and his conditioning.
"He continues to get better and we love the fact that he's committed," Krzyzewski said. "He's trimmed down and he's trying like crazy."
With stars like LeBron James, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin dropping out of this summer's international competition, the door is seemingly is wide-open for Cousins, who is one of 20 player competing to snag one of the coveted 12 roster spots for the National Team, before the FIBA Basketball World Cup, beginning Aug. 30 in Spain.
"He wants to be a part of it and there's some guys who don't," Krzyzewski continued. "He's come (to camp) multiple times, so that level of commitment is not just to be admired, it needs to be talked about."
Even before some of the elite players dropped out of this year's competition, Cousins already considered the competition to be a non-factor.
Possibly his biggest fan on USA Basketball is the team's leader and reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant, who has become a mentor to Cousins over the past week. Durant taking a liking to Cousins' unique skill set - who at 6-foot-11, 270-pounder can score, play physical, but probably his best attribute is his ability to move the ball.
One couldn't help but notice how the two were seemingly attached at the hip most of the week. Both warming up together and participating in many shooting drills. After a less than stellar day of practice on Tuesday, where Cousins was fatigued and battling a sore right quad, Durant could be seen having an animated conversation with him.
"I've been a big fan of DeMarcus since he was in college (at Kentucky)," said Durant. "(I) just try to help him out both on the court and off the court ... he listens to me, man and I just try to help."
Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins wraps up Team USA camp in Las Vegas. Boogie talks about the experience, learning from Kevin Durant, making the final roster. He also had a long visit with Kings' head coach Michael Malone News10/KXTV
During Tuesday, the second day of camp, Kings' head coach Michael Malone was in attendance to show his support of his franchise player. His goal was to be a sounding board of support for Cousins, considering feedback from the USA coaching staff was rather quiet.
Malone would go on to remain in Vegas, attending each day of practice and meeting with Cousins following each practice session. The longest of the visits coming following the lightest day of practice on Thursday.
"Just the fact that he's here competing against some of the best players in the NBA is a testament to his hard work and his commitment," Malone said. "I've seen a lot of progress, his heart's in the right place - he wants this so bad. That's what I know about DeMarcus. He wants to make this team so bad and if he's able to do so, it'll be great for him and the city of Sacramento."
Cousins and Kings fans alike received a little bit of a scare on Thursday, the evening prior to the team's scrimmage at Thomas and Mack Center. That's when Krzyzewksi commented that Cousins would have a harder time than some of the other front court players fitting into his system. An ESPN report followed those comments stating that Brooklyn Nets' forward Mason Plumlee, who played with his brother Miles at Duke University under Krzyzewksi, was likely to make the team over Cousins.
Krzyzewski is in search for bigs who can defend the paint against the size of international teams like Spain, who will feature brothers Pau and Mark Gasol, as well as Serge Ibaka. He was impressed enough with his former player's progress on the Select Team to make the rare move of immediately sliding him over the National pool of players, right alongside Cousins.
Davis aside, add Plumlee to the list of competition Cousins faces for the final roster. Also in the mix is Detroit's Andre Drummond, Denver's Kenneth Faried and newly acquired Dallas forward Chandler Parsons.
"In DeMarcus' case, the style we play lends itself to what Anthony [Davis], or even what [Mason] Plumlee does and a little bit of [Andre] Drummond," said Krzyzewski. "DeMarcus' game is different, so he has an adjustment to make and he's trying to make it. Also, as he grows, we have to look and see if there is something we can do to bring more out of his game. We're going to take a good look at our bigs."
Fellow Kentucky product and Pelicans' star Anthony Davis is considered the favorite to return as the team's starting center.
'Coach K' admitted that he, his coaching staff and managing director Jerry Colangelo would need to see the team's exhibition games before making a decision on their bigger players.
"It's different then playing with your team in Sacramento," Durant said. "You're not going to get tall of the touches; you can't shoot at will. So, it's a little different and he's doing well."
That opportunity came on Friday, in a inter-squad scrimmage which was marred in the fourth quarter by a horrific right leg injury to Indiana Pacers forward Paul George.
With 9:33 left in the fourth quarter, George went airborne to defend a driving James Harden, when his leg wedged into the corner where the baseline met the stanchion and snapped. He was stretchered off the floor after a 15 minute delay and was taken to a Las Vegas hospital where he immediately had surgery. USA Basketball cancelled the remainder of the event after players were too shaken by what they had witnessed, and out of respect to George and his family.
George suffered an open tibia-fibula fracture and would likely be out for the 2014-15 NBA season.
Before the stoppage, Cousins was a bright spot for the White team, where he started alongside Durant, and cruised his way to a double-double, scoring 11 points and 11 rebounds before the scrimmage was halted.
The loss of George sent a shock wave through USA Basketball that night. And respectfully, his absence will open up yet another roster spot for this summer's team, as he was slated to be the starting small forward, which would have meant that Durant would play the power forward.
Colangelo and Krzyzewski both made it clear that in the immediate future, their attention and concern would be with their fallen teammate and not with decision to who will make the roster.
As he wrapped up his final practice session with the team on Thursday, Cousins summed up his experience this year as a positive one, feeling he left a positive impression with the powers that be.
"I came in, did what I could do, controlled what I could control," he said. "Everything is (up) in the air now. We'll see what happens."
To that point, and similarly in years past, Cousins was still in the dark as to where he stood with Krzyzewski and Colangelo, who ultimately make the final roster decisions.
"Honestly, I don't really know," he said. "I haven't really gotten any feedback and I believe they want it that way. Everything is (up) in the air from here. (I'll) just hope for the best."
Cousins said he felt he learned much more this year from participating in USA Basketball camp than years past. Durant had as much to do with that than anyone. Learning to be a better leader, team player and looking at the game more methodically.
Just like the All-Star snub, Cousins will certainly be crushed if he's left off the final USA roster, but building the relationship with Durant, the feedback he's received from his fellow teammates has been the silver lining.
"Hopefully I make it, of course everyone knows I want to make this team," Cousins said. "Whenever I put my all into something and don't accomplish it, of course it's a disappointment to me, but it's only going to make me want it more next time. So I'll take it and just add it to the fire."
With the Las Vegas camp complete, the team will resume the second leg of camp Aug. 14-15 in Chicago.
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