Commentary: Team USA camp gives DeMarcus Cousins a chance to fix his image

The Sacramento BeeJuly 23, 2013 

LAS VEGAS — This is when it starts, this new chance for DeMarcus Cousins.

His return visit with the U.S. national team — the chance to enhance his prospects as a future Olympian — is also his latest and perhaps best opportunity to obliterate the past and sketch a more favorable, embraceable image.

The suspensions. The locker room feuds. The verbal tangle with a television analyst. The communication dust-up a year ago with the USA Basketball czar.

With issue-free participation in this week's mini-camp, Cousins redirects his career. He wins over his critics, empowers his advocates and delivers a strong message to his new bosses and his curious fans back in Sacramento.

But he has decisions to make and thoughts to be shared. He has undertaken a strange vow of silence — his feelings about the dramatic developments in Sacramento are unclear — while his new agent (Dan Fegan) privately seeks a five-year maximum contract before the Oct. 31 deadline.

That deal should not and probably will not happen. Cousins, who can become a restricted free agent next summer, still has much to prove. He doesn't have to be perfect, but he has to behave. If he just plays the game and dumps the nonsense, he takes the angst out of any negotiations. He completes the season and earns that max deal.

"My whole thing with DeMarcus is, as I told him, 'We're a partnership,'" said Kings Coach Michael Malone, who recently visited Cousins in Mobile, Ala. "'I'm coming into this with an open heart and open mind. All the stuff that happened ... we're beyond that.'

"I also challenged him to be the leader of this team, and that means doing the right things every day. If he buys in and sets the tone, everybody else steps in line."

The Kings don't parse words when discussing Cousins. They want him. They like him. They need him. When the new ownership group finalized its purchase of the team, one of principal owner Vivek Ranadive's first calls was to Cousins.

Based on Cousins' interaction with Malone during the Kings' NBA Summer League finale, when the two hugged and yukked it up on the bench, the veteran center appears similarly eager to reboot the program with the new regime.

His desire to remain with the Kings was even more evident during the 2012-13 season finale against the Clippers. With speculation about a possible relocation persisting and permeating the locker room, Cousins produced the most dominating performance of his career. He was spectacular, inspired, appreciative.

One moment was particularly memorable: After swatting away a driving layup attempt by Matt Barnes that forced a Clippers timeout, Cousins looked directly into the stands and crisply saluted the fans.

Later that night, he lingered in the locker room long after his teammates had departed. With his massive hands behind his head — two cellphones bleating, unanswered — he leaned back and quietly vented about the Kings' future.

He asked questions, asked if there was reason for hope. He wanted to know whether Ranadive's group had a realistic chance of buying the team and building an arena. He wanted more than anything, he said, to hear the Kings were staying in Sacramento.

"I would love to be part of that, to be the guy that stays here and turns this (franchise) around with new ownership," he said. "I hope so, I really do. I don't want to go anywhere."

This off-season vow of silence? This uncharacteristically muted DeMarcus? That's his agent talking. Let's see how long this lasts. Cousins is a social creature who craves conversation.

The do-over started Monday. Cousins is approaching the defining months of his career, that time when perceptions are permanently entered into scouting reports. We've all seen what he can do. Now is the time to become the player we know he can be.

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