BARCELONA — DeMarcus Cousins might barely play in the U.S. National Team’s quarterfinal matchup against Slovenia here Tuesday at the Palau Saint Jordi.
Circumstances beyond his control will dictate whether the biggest and perhaps best, by NBA standards, big man on the U.S. roster has a chance to show what he can do.
Such is life in the USA Basketball bubble, where All-Stars are asked to be reserves and a dominant big man has to wait his turn against an opponent that will spread the floor with as many as five 3-point shooters in an attempt to agitate the U.S.
One night you are the man. The next, you’re on the bench watching someone else play that role, depending on the matchup.
“It’s definitely a change for me,” Cousins said. “It’s an adjustment. I’m not used to coming off the bench, not used to playing limited minutes. It’s a huge adjustment. But everybody has a different role, and in order for us to get that ultimate goal, that gold medal, we have to play our roles to the best of our abilities.”
The fact that Cousins is even here and a part of this particular team raised eyebrows for some. Like several players on this team, he wasn’t viewed as the ideal fit. The need for fleet-footed bigs with shooting range out to and beyond the 3-point line is a must in FIBA competition.
The skills Cousins brings to the table — a traditional, low-post big man who does best work around the basket and with his back to it often — don’t mesh with the style of the day. But he represents a strategic shift for the U.S. and a serves as a potential wild card as this week goes on. If the U.S. is able to win its way through to this weekend’s medal games in Madrid, a rugged big man with his size and skill could come in handy.
As well as Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried, the U.S. starters at center and power forward, respectively, Cousins has proved himself indispensible as the Plan B big man.
“I think he’s come a long way,” said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo. “I’m really, really happy for him. And I’m really happy for us. The one thing, he came in with a desire to make it. This was big to him. So he already had a leg up in terms of attitude and he wanted this thing. I think he’s paid his dues. He’s worked hard. Had a little setback when he went down. Fortunately it wasn’t something that knocked him out. But right now he’s playing really well. And his size and his ability could be real factor before this is over.”
Cousins was needed in Saturdays win over Mexico, whose Gustavo Ayon worked the U.S. for 25 points and eight rebounds and worked over Davis and Faried in the process but wasn’t able to take physical advantage of Cousins.
U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski praised Cousins for his work and lauded his diligence in making himself a factor on this team.
“We have believed in DeMarcus right from start of training camp,” he said. “All the reports about him not making the team and all that were all … not right. We felt he would be the perfect guy with or in place of Anthony at times, but more in the place of Anthony, and I think it’s just a matter of him continuing to get in better shape, our guys getting accustomed that when he does come into the game he’s different than Anthony and so to look for him. I think they see him more now, and I think his defense has really improved. He tried to take three charges (against Mexico). He played Ayon pretty well without getting help, so they couldn’t get a three off of him. I thought he played. He’d get an A+ from me, let’s just put it that way.”
The strategic shift to incorporate a more traditional big man into the mix was done partly out of necessity and also based on the specific challenges of this particular competition (Spain and the brothers Gasol and Serge Ibaka loom in a potential gold medal showdown).
Having the physical firepower to play any style was a part of the U.S. game plan this time around.
“Since we’ve been together, and I’m going back now to 2005, we didnt have a major presence in the middle,” Colangelo said. “We just didn’t. Dwight Howard was a young Dwight Howard then and Chris Bosh was his back up, a young back up. After that it was different. We didn’t have that real dominant kind of guy in the middle. We went with more of a perimeter game and we were structured that way.
“So this was a little change in strategy. And it just so happens, as things developed. If you were to add Kevin Durant and Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, that still would have put us in a situation where we might not have looked to some of the bigger guys in the middle. So circumstances caused us, not forced us, but caused us to see what other options do we have here. And we looked at our bigs and said, ‘let’s go with them.'”
That was music to the ears of Cousins and fellow behemoth Andre Drummond, another surprise addition to the roster.
What sort of impact they have, however, depends on the specific matchups.
“The only thing that is on our mind is to win,” Coach K said. “And winning means that you should have a nine or ten man rotation, so that’s all we are looking for. The game will give you the opportunity to put the right people in, because of matchups, and that is what we are looking for … We are going to match up according to what they do, because the first thing is we have to play defense against them.”
Cousins has shown himself to be a willing defender and rim protector in his minutes here, not to mention a more than capable rebounder and physical force. He’s never had a problem scoring and hasn’t against anyone he’s faced so far.
And yet he readily admits that he’s still finding his way against the big men he’s dealt with the past six games.
“Basically, it’s just me finding my role, getting used to the style of play and learning how to be effective,” he said. “It’s the first time for me, playing this way. For me it’s a process. But I’m coming into my own. I think you can see that from the way I’ve been playing. I’m getting better as we keep playing.”