Through a handful of phone calls, DeMarcus Cousins received a blueprint on how to overcome the biggest challenge of his nine-year NBA career.
Well before he could even begin his rehab from his Achilles injury, Cousins contacted one of the NBA’s best dunkers (former Atlanta Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins), one of the league’s best scorers (former Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant), a former teammate (San Antonio Spurs forward Rudy Gay) and a dependable NBA role player (Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Mathews). Shortly after the Warriors signed Cousins to a one-year $5.3 million deal last July with their mid-level taxpayer exception, Cousins spoke with the Warriors’ other free agent acquisition (Jonas Jerebko).
Cousins did not talk to them so he could vent. The former University of Kentucky star talked to them so he could learn how to better heal a left Achilles tendon he injured on Jan. 27, 2018, with the New Orleans Pelicans.
“I wasn’t really looking for a specific answer to get through it,” Cousins said. “I wanted to see what each guy’s mindset was and compare it to my own.”
Each players’ journey has been different. They mostly stressed similar messages, though.
While Wilkins advised Cousins “not to listen to the critics,” Gay instructed Cousins, “don’t feel sorry for yourself.” A few months following Cousins’ surgery on Jan. 31, 2018, Mathews told him “to take his time.” Shortly after the two became teammates last summer, Jerebko argued the same thing.
“We’re going to need you, but when we need you is when we’re talking playoffs’” Jerebko recalled saying. “’We’re going to need you in the long run. So don’t stress anything or push yourself too hard. Let it come.’”
Cousins does not have to wait too much longer. Cousins has targeted his return for Friday against the Clippers in Los Angeles.
During a year that he called “extremely humbling,” Cousins attributed his comeback toward staying stubborn and leaning on his family for support. He also found it helpful to have informal conversations with NBA players that had also suffered an Achilles injury.
“To say I was consistent with contact, no. I wanted to go and learn this process on my own and figure it out on my own,” Cousins said. “Every guy is different and every guy handles differently. The mindset is different. I know myself and how to get through situations.”
Sifting through the different journeys
All of the players that Cousins consulted navigated their own Achilles injury with varying success and challenges.
After injuring his left Achilles toward the end of the 2012-13 season, a 35-year-old Bryant returned eight months later, played for six games the following season and then needed season-ending left knee surgery. Bryant became limited in 2014-15 (35 games) and during his final season, recording his lowest marks in points (17.6) and shooting percentage (35.8 percent since his second NBA season).
“To be a true champion, sometimes you have to get knocked down,” Bryant said during his final season. “It happened with my Achilles. It happens to the best of us. A true mark of a champion is how you get up.”
After tearing his left Achilles tendon on Jan. 19, 2017, the 31-year-old Gay accepted a reducing scoring role last season with the Spurs (11.5 points per game) compared to his career averages (17.8) while still tying his career-high in shooting percentage (47.1 percent). This season, Gay has increased his scoring (13.6 points per game) while posting new career-highs in shooting percentages from the field (51.1 percent) and from long (41.5 percent).
“If you work hard, then good things will happen for you,” Gay said. “It’s still a blessing I can come out here and say I’m here and able to do some of the things I do. But the real blessing is the fact I was able to push myself every day.”
After rupturing his left Achilles tendon in 2014-15 with Portland, a 29-year-old Mathews signed with Dallas and has since posted worse shooting numbers in 2015-16 (38.8 percent), 2016-17 (39.3 percent, 2017-18 (40.6 percent) and 2018-19 (41.9 percent) than his career average through 10 NBA seasons (42.7 percent). Still, Mathews has shown gradual improvement in his efficiency in the past four seasons.
“You have to take your time, have confidence in your body and keep the same work ethic,” Mathews said. “There’s nothing easy about the process. It’s just knowing what you want to do and knowing when to get back on the court.”
Jerebko returned to the court after missing his entire second NBA season in 2010-11. After the Detroit Pistons drafted him at No. 39 in 2009, Jerebko posted promising numbers (9.3 points, 6 rebounds). During the first quarter of a preseason loss to Miami on Oct. 5, 2010, though, a 25-year-old Jerebko fell on the floor and strained his right Achilles tendon. Pistons trainers immediately ruled him out for the season. He returned 14 months later and has had a productive career since in Detroit (2011-2014), Boston (2014-17), Utah (2017-18) and Golden State (2018-19).
“Ever since I did my Achilles, I never had any problems with my leg,” said Jerebko, who normally completes calf raises to keep his right Achilles strong. “I could barely jump from my right leg. Now I can dunk on my right leg.”
Even at 32 years old, Wilkins also had no problem dunking following his right Achilles tendon injury. After his injury on Jan. 28, 1992, Wilkins returned for the 1992-93 season and averaged 29.9 points on 46.8 percent shooting. Those numbers marked a slight increase from the previous year’s output when he averaged 28.1 points on a 46.4 percent clip. Wilkins then played seven more years and made two more All-Star appearances.
“Everybody said I was done. I was like, ‘Really? I’m back,’“ Wilkins said. “I was determined to prove all of the doubters wrong. I did. I came back and had my best all-around season.”
Can Cousins follow Wilkins’ path?
After having all those conversations with a handful of other NBA players that injured either their left or right Achilles tendon, what did Cousins learn?
“I took in the information that helped,” Cousins said. “The stuff that I didn’t really relate to, I took it with a grain of salt.”
Therefore, it appears likely that the 28-year-old Cousins found Wilkins’ feedback most beneficial. The reason? Wilkins is another towering frontcourt player. He also had the most successful comeback among all NBA players that have hurt their Achilles tendons.
How did Wilkins do it? As Wilkins remembered telling Cousins, “you have to block out all the other negative stuff.” Wilkins completed rehab sessions twice a day for nine months. He first completed water therapy that helped strengthen his Achilles. He worked out his upper body so that his core remained strong. He then rehabbed on a machine called “the Elgin,” which he said stretched his right foot in four different directions to increase its flexibility. Wilkins then added weight on the machine to strengthen his right foot.
Wilkins then experienced a significant breakthrough during training camp in a series of one-on-one, two-on-two and three-on-three scrimmages. Then, Wilkins fell hard to the ground after throwing down a dunk in traffic. Wilkins grabbed his right ankle and realized he did not feel any pain.
“If this thing is going to pop, it’s going to pop on my terms. I’m going to go all out,” Wilkins said. “I just blocked it out. I got the fear of hurting it again out of my system.”
Once Wilkins played in an actual game, he said he never felt inhibited to play physical or drive to the basket in hopes to throw down one of his signature dunks.
“I liked physical contact, anyway. So I didn’t care about that,” Wilkins said. “What the injury did for me was maybe learn how to play on the ground as well as in the air even more. It makes you become more fundamentally sound.”
How will Cousins fare in his return?
Once Cousins wears a Warriors uniform in an actual game, no one expects Cousins to replicate his career numbers in points (21.5) and rebounds (11.0) during his eight combined seasons in Sacramento (2010-2017) and New Orleans (2017-18).
After all, Cousins will have to blend his talent with four other All-Stars with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. But what about Cousins’ presence alone?
“If he’s healthy, that definitely elevates Golden State. There’s no question about that,” Wilkins said. “He’s the best big man in the league before he got hurt.”
And since he has gotten hurt?
“He’s a very skilled guy. He’s already very fundamentally sound,” Wilkins said. “He has to continue to nurture and really hone those skills.”
Warriors Coach Steve Kerr plans to start Cousins because of his All-Star credentials, have a true center at the five position and open up shots for his All-Star teammates with screens and passes. Kerr also plans to stagger Cousins with the second unit so he can both command a playmaking role that David West once fulfilled and score with a blend of postups and outside shots.
“I actually expect him to be more skilled,” Mathews said. “When you’re lacking movement, you have to work on other things. Shooting is something you can always do. That’s not something that’s going to tear your body apart. His ball handling, vision of the game and knowledge of the game will help.”
Nonetheless, Cousins and the Warriors concede various question marks. How will his conditioning hold up after initially laboring through that during scrimmages in the last month? How will Cousins adjust to his sublimated role? Can he adapt to the Warriors’ faster pace compared to what he experienced in Sacramento and New Orleans? To what extent will the Warriors adjust their system to ease Cousins’ transition?
“Obviously it sucks for me that he’s in the Western Conference and on the Warriors. But I think he’ll be fine,” Gay said. “I know what he can do. We all know what he can do. But where he ends up on that team, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. I don’t think the team knows.”
Still, Mathews became encouraged after seeing some of his workout videos. The most notable: when Cousins dunked over Durant and sent him to the floor. Although that scrimmage highlights pale to actual game performances, Mathews argue “that’s a lot of confidence you have to have in your body to do something like that.”
Jerebko has seen other examples, admiring how Cousins has stayed disciplined with his rehab without accelerating the process.
“He’s going to help us. I know by experience he’s going to be back 100 percent,” Jerebko said. “So I’m not concerned about that. I’ve seen him working. I’m just looking forward to the date when he’s back.”
That date is soon approaching. Then, Cousins hopes to write his comeback story. He already has learned plenty on how others wrote theirs.
“It’s really tested me as a person, a man and an athlete,” Cousins said. “I had a lot of dark days and a lot of good days. I questioned myself a lot. But I found a way to overcome all of those bad feelings. I see the light at the end of the tunnel and extremely excited to be out on there on the floor.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader