Why DeMarcus Cousins Needs to Fit In
Not so fast, DeMarcus Cousins, I'm not through with you yet. I said I would not allow a blinding hatred of you to ruin this draft for me; I acknowledged that indeed, there was much to recommend you as a pro. But I also got all my misgivings down on record. I see why Cousins should be a high pick tomorrow night; however, that's just the beginning of the process.
You can lead weapons-grade plutonium to some over-eager non-state actors, but you can't make it drink. What lies ahead for a prospect like Cousins -- in particular, a bouquet of question marks like the Kentucky big man -- was the subject of TrueHoop piece yesterday on player development.
However, when I look at Cousins, and so many other players in this draft, I don't see a sink-or-swim moment for young, unformed studs. Nor do I see a league-wide issue that might point the way to a two-year age limit. It's a pretty straightforward, if unglamorous one: that of fit.
Just as all players are different, so are the teams they are drafted by. It's not so much a question of some perfect system of bringing along youngsters, and making them feel wanted and accepted. By the time someone is a professional athlete, it has to be more of a two-way street. It's an organization's job to bring out the best in them, and cultivate their abilities.
At the same time, if it doesn't seem like a place where a player will thrive -- that is, grow into his role as a contributing member of a greater cause -- the fit is bad.
I know the retort: These are millionaire professionals. They should suck it up and do what the team needs, or otherwise stay in school. But guess what? It's not that simple. Ever. Not in the NBA, not in the corporate world, not with any organization that looks to bring in new blood. In the NBA, the youth may be especially raw; that's why it's about putting them somewhere that growth is possible, not setting up a situation where they need to grin and bear too much, or change who they are mid-stream.
By contrast, life-skills seems positively quaint -- or at least incidental. If they have them, they have them. If not, it's too late. Maybe they'll pick them up from a veteran. But when Henry bemoans Greg Oden's lack of single mentor, I ask why a zillion assistants, trainers, a warm-and-fuzzy environment, adoring fans, sheltered media environment, nice city, friends from home, and psychiatric help if he wants it aren't enough.
Why does this lead back to Cousins? Because no one has time to be John Thompson at an NBA level. And when a player's made it that far, basketball isn't a proxy for life. It is life. A team mostly wants its investment to perform at a high level, but there's no guarantee that life-skills will be part of that package.
A player like Cousins can be kept happy, engaged, and set on the path toward a long, productive career by simply being evaluated properly, handed to a coach who likes his game, and not going to a franchise where everyone hates each other. Make sure there are some veterans to check in on him. Understand how long it might take for him to blossom into a lovely creature for the ages.
Basically, don't screw the kid over, or you're just screwing yourself. That's especially salient in a draft where so many players lack a clear position, need a couple years, or may find themselves having to justify being drafted over any number of sleeper-stars down the road.
Anthony Randolph, who ended up in Golden State with a Don Nelson who didn't want to coach him (as opposed to the Don Nelson who did want to coach Stephen Curry), is likely going to need a season or two to find his bearings if, as rumor has it, he's moved sometime soon. This isn't about finding Randolph a Big Brother, it's just a question of whether he's dealt somewhere that acknowledges this, and where he feels comfortable finding himself.
Player development could be utopic (or dystopic), and open out onto all sorts of broader discussions about athletes and society. Or we could stop-gap the discussion with some common sense: If teams pick a player they get, want, and are ready to accept as a personality, and are a tolerable setting for a rookie to develop, things will more likely work out.
Anything else expects more of the NBA than most other high-stakes ventures on Earth.