SACRAMENTO, Calif. — DeMarcus Cousins should be on the All-Star team. That debate should have ended days ago, certainly before he sprained his left ankle, jeopardizing his availability for the next few games.
His numbers are overpowering — 22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 49 percent field-goal percentage — and his intangibles are shifting, leaning over and into the favorable side of the ledger. Gradually, Cousins is closing in on another milestone: the day his enormous talents and consistent performances overwhelm his previous issues.
This doesn't necessarily mean the Kings center will be rewarded with his first All-Star berth. Halfway into his fourth season, he secretly is coveted by many, but he's still merely a threat to join the game's most respected big men; repair jobs on reputations take years.
NBA coaches, who Thursday select players for the remaining seven roster spots on the East and West squads, are a diverse and stubborn bunch. They look at numbers, they look at wins, they look at everything else.
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Cousins, who confronted Spurs analyst Sean Elliott after a game last season, won't be receiving an endorsement from Coach Gregg Popovich. He still complains too often to the referees (see league-leading number of technicals), irritates friend and foe with on-court histrionics and has been overheard retorting crudely to fans, not unlike Charles Barkley and a number of other players and coaches who have embarrassed themselves with "knucklehead" moments, as Barkley refers to them.
But this is a talent-driven league. When stock rises, when the numbers jump and the behavior improves, everyone pays attention. And Cousins is drawing attention. One general manager told me last week, "There aren't enough of those bad incidents to matter anymore." Late Friday, Indiana Pacers assistant Nate McMillan, a no-nonsense former player and head coach, said Cousins' abilities increasingly are dominating the conversation among his peers.
"Coaches look at individual numbers and the team record," McMillan said. "Normally, I would say the team record (15-27) is very important. But his stats are so incredible, that to me, when you're picking All-Stars, that matters more. I think he's got a shot."
When exactly did the earth start to move, opinions start to inch the other direction?
Cousins' production during the recent six-game road swing raised his profile. But the first hint of progress came last summer when he participated in the Select Team training camp in Las Vegas. Last week, he joined the 28 candidates who will compete for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic teams.
"There are some emerging bigs, and DeMarcus is one of them," USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo said. "The fact is, he earned this. He's paid some dues. That kid (Andre) Drummond isn't bad, either, and Anthony Davis can play three positions. Moving forward, chances are we'll have a bigger presence in the middle, which we haven't had in the recent past."
Colangelo, who once traded for Barkley and so knows all about knuckleheads, even charming ones, has monitored Cousins throughout the season and been impressed with his consistency.
"It's not just the start of the season, or the middle of the season, or the end of the season," Colangelo said. "DeMarcus looks to be in pretty good shape. He seems to be in better control. And he's making better decisions. We also are very aware of his improved efficiency. The next step will be to finish his season strong and then come to camp and compete for a spot."
Cousins' more immediate future involves rehabilitating his ankle and recovering quickly enough to be considered for an All-Star berth, either as anointed by the coaches or owing to circumstances; incoming Commissioner Adam Silver will name replacements if any All-Stars withdraw because of injury or illness, an annual occurrence.
Deserving players often have to bide time. Stephen Curry was an omission a year ago, and this season was voted among the starters. Frontcourt superstars Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are aging and not the players they once were, but which coaches don't submit their names? LaMarcus Aldridge is an obvious addition, David Lee will receive consideration, and overrated Dwight Howard might entice a few votes.
Cousins, 23, who has missed just four games because of injury in four seasons, needs to experience a Zen moment. He needs to keep his cool, continue improving his conditioning — a career-long challenge given his thick body type — and when he is activated today, next week, or the week after, pick up his ball and continue where he left off.
If he does all of the above, he'll be an All-Star and an Olympian, sooner rather than later.