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Boogie Nights

On a two-game road trip to Los Angeles, DeMarcus Cousins, his coaches, and his teammates talk about how he’s been adjusting to his role on the NBA’s most imposing team

Kevin Durant patting DeMarcus Cousins’s shoulder Getty Images/Ringer illustration

DeMarcus Cousins is chucking. It’s Friday morning at Staples Center, just hours before his Golden State Warriors debut against the Clippers in Los Angeles. But all that matters right now is this shooting contest. Cousins misses a shot from the left wing and playfully yells at himself in the third person. “Come on, Cuz!”

He’s trash talking, returning passes when they’re poor (“Oh, hell no, give me a better pass”), and working himself into a rhythm. “This is where I flourish. This is where I flourish,” he repeats, his voice getting louder, his shot rarely missing.

This may be a shootaround, but as media surrounds Cousins, with their phones out and ready to broadcast his every move ahead of his return to the court following his season-ending Achilles injury last February, it seems like a performance unto itself, a preview of what’s to come. When the contest among Cousins, Quinn Cook, and Kevon Looney is over, Cousins saunters over to a courtside seat that may as well be his pulpit.

A reporter asks him what he woke up thinking about that morning. Cousins answers in monotone: “Basketball,” then stops, chuckles, and decides to answer like himself. “Honestly, I woke up thinking about the new Future album.”

This is the no-filter character we’ve come to know, the outsize persona not even Cousins himself can temper. Maybe he’s not the big man the league wants, but he is the one it needs—and now, the one that the Warriors have come to embrace.

“He’s an emotional guy, but he’s loved,” said head coach Steve Kerr, who called the timing of Cousins’s return “perfect.” “A good thing about him being there for the first half of the season is he understands the world we live in.”

Golden State’s weekend in L.A. was all about Cousins. He was the subject of nearly every question asked of every Warrior and the focus of the postgame attention after his debut. It was his first, small taste of what it’s like to live in the Golden State spotlight.

“This is probably the most fake attention I’ve ever gotten. … I don’t know how Steph and KD do it on the daily with cameras around. I don’t like it,” Cousins told a packed room of media in front of a microphone Friday night. When asked to explain why he thought that the Warriors were the league’s most-hated team, he replied with a question. “Have you seen social media?” And when he was asked what he thought about Marcin Gortat’s trash talk and physical play in the post, he said, “Wait till I get in midseason form.” He wasn’t referring to basketball.

On Friday, Cousins spent only 15 minutes on the court, but he packed the box score tightly with 14 points, six rebounds, three 3s, three assists, one block, and one steal. He finished with a plus-21, second only to Draymond Green’s plus-24. His first basket was a crushing dunk that sent the Warriors bench into delirium. Golden State handled both the Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers (Monday night’s contest) with ease.

Oh, and about that 3-point game at shootaround?

“I won,” Cousins said, walking away from the scrum.

Two games into the Boogie era, it appears the Warriors did too.

When the Warriors signed Cousins on July 3, Quinn Cook was confused. So he called Cousins to confirm the news that, 10 years after the two became friends while facing off in a high school tournament in Hawaii, they were about to become teammates on the best team in the NBA, walking into an arena together with all cameras fixated on them.

“We were from two different parts of the country,” Cook told me of their unlikely friendship. “I don’t know. It was just real. We spoke the same language. We had an instant connection.”

In December 2008, Cook’s DeMatha (Maryland) team faced Cousins’s LeFlore (Alabama) squad in the Iolani Classic while Cook was a sophomore and Cousins a senior. The final score was 70-58 LeFlore. “He had, like, [34] points and he killed us,” Cook said with a pained smile. “We had nobody who could stop him. He throws that in my face once a week.”

Cousins was a five-star player, the no. 3 recruit in the nation. After a year at Kentucky, he held his predraft workouts in Washington, D.C., where Cook lived. The two grew even closer, and Cook would drive Cousins around when they went out and got food together. He had a front row seat for previewing the player the league would have to figure out how to stop. Cook said he always knew his buddy could shoot even if he didn’t show it back then, but even he didn’t foresee the Boogie he sees now, stepping back beyond the arc and swishing 3s like a third Splash Brother.

“I think he’s always been capable,” Cook said. “I just think the league changed.”

Cousins shot less than one 3 a game during his first five seasons, with the Sacramento Kings. Slowly, he began familiarizing himself with the perimeter, bending defenses past their limits in the process. This development peaked last season in New Orleans, when he took more than six 3s a game and made 35 percent of them.

Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins said that Cousins’s shooting was a part of the long journey that he’s taken to get back to playing form. Cousins’s skill behind the arc helps make up for his still-developing conditioning post-Achilles recovery. Kerr said he could see Cousins trailing a lot of plays early on because of the Warriors’ pace, which would give him opportunities to knock down open shots.

After the game Friday, Cousins was surprised at how much real estate the Clippers defenders were giving him beyond the 3-point line. “I want to know what the scouting report for me is right now,” Cousins said with a chuckle. “I’m not mad.”

All weekend, the Warriors kept talking up Cousins’s versatility and how it makes him the perfect addition to the team. He can shoot from distance and bully opponents near the rim, a skill the Warriors have lacked. His passing is advanced for a big, and it’s not dependent on his full recovery. His playmaking instincts are as good as ever, as he found wide-open shooters and cutters with ease. He can also do something that Golden State isn’t particularly good at: rebound. Like he did over the last two games, Cousins is going to give three of the greatest shooters of all time a lot of second bullets.

Cousins played only 35 minutes during the two games in Los Angeles (he averaged 36 a game last season), but it was like the old Boogie never left. During both matchups, he found himself in in foul trouble (which Kerr predicted) and had plenty to say to the officials whenever a call didn’t go his way. Against the Lakers, he even used a timeout to approach the scorer’s table and continue talking to the referee. On another occasion, Green, of all people, de-escalated Cousins’s fiery complaint after a blocking foul was called.

“I think that when you have a player of his magnitude, when he provides that emotion, that power, that fire, it is fuel for our team,” Collins told me.

“He’s a funny dude. He makes jokes and talks trash from the bench,” Damian Jones said. “I don’t know what he’s saying in the game right now, but on the bench he was always talking.”

Collins, who coaches the Warriors’ bigs, said that while rehabbing during the first half of the season, Cousins acted as a de facto player-coach for Golden State’s other bigs.

When I asked Kevon Looney and Jones about this, they both cited “tricks” that Cousins had taught them in order to improve at positioning and how to defend and go at other bigs around the league, most recently the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic. For them, a weekend of watching Cousins do the things he has talked to them about all season from the bench and in practice was like watching a textbook come to life.

“He’s been kicking our butts in practice,” Looney told me, with a wide smile. “I’m just glad he’s gonna kick everyone else’s now.”

It took just a few days for the buzz around Cousins to settle down, that is, if anything around the Warriors ever really settles down. After Golden State trounced the Lakers on Monday, thanks to Klay Thompson’s 10 3s and 41 points, Cousins’s postgame-interview location moved. He was no longer in a press conference room packed to the door with people. Instead, he opted to talk in front of his locker where he sat with a blue hood over his head and his feet sunk deep into a blue tub of ice. “I guess I’m not as cool anymore,” he joked.

Cousins said he didn’t feel sore and ended up fielding more questions about his teammates than his ailing legs. He was repeatedly asked about Thompson, who made a record 10 straight 3-point attempts to open the game before missing an 11th. When told of Thompson’s record, all Cousins could do was throw his head back and say, “Shiiiiiit.” On the Kings or the New Orleans Pelicans, Cousins and his Achilles would have likely been a bigger topic of discussion. But with the Warriors, it can become just a small part of the show that even Cousins himself can sit back and enjoy. “Man, it’s like a new record every day, ain’t it?”

Cousins is still in the honeymoon period with his new team; everything seems amazing. To be fair, it is. The Warriors have won 10 of their last 11 and are leading the West by a game over the Nuggets. They boast the best offense in the league. Adding Cousins to that mix is more a luxury than a risk. Only on the Warriors can a player talk about a potential 10-game winning streak as a normality. “Let’s get to double digits. We haven’t done it all year,” Thompson said.

“We’re in the middle of a long season, so this is a new opportunity for us to experiment, try something different, and enjoy that process,” Kerr said of Cousins’s integration. “We have certain sets that we’ve been running for years now,” Curry said Sunday. “It’s kind of second nature to most guys. For him ... it takes a while to get caught up to speed, and when things start moving 100 miles an hour on the court, it’s even tougher.” In Cousins’s first four minutes on the floor, Curry said, the team ran only one play and messed it up. Imagine what the Warriors offense will look like when things go right.

Golden State’s trip to L.A. was the perfect coupling of games to remind the NBA of the team’s deep riches. One win showcased how impactful Cousins could be in the Warriors’ system, and the other was a sign of how it may not even matter if Cousins is nothing more than serviceable. The Warriors don’t need him; they get to have him. Time should only make him more useful and the team more deadly.

“He gives us a whole other level,” Cook said, shaking his head. “We’re on a whole other level now.”


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