Cousins making progress on, off court

HONOLULU -- In a highly anticipated matchup between two of the best big men in the class of 2009, one made a significant adjustment in his game. At the 'Iolani Classic, an annual high school basketball tournament held here this past week, LeFlore (Mobile, Ala.) took on Fairfax (Los Angeles) in the tournament's consolation game. It was the first time LeFlore's DeMarcus Cousins and Fairfax's Renardo Sidney went head-to-head. In a game many predicted to be a down-low duel, the 6-foot-9 Cousins and 6-10 Sidney changed it up by stepping out to the perimeter and calling for isolation. For most of the first half, each tried to cross the other, but instead settled for jump shots, connecting on only a few.

In the second quarter, while Sidney maintained a guard's mentality, Cousins began to battle for position inside. He connected on a goodie bag of hook shots, layups off of spin moves and putbacks. After LeFlore trailed 15-10 in the first quarter, Cousins was the momentum changer as the Rattlers outscored the Lions 15-4 in the second, giving them a 25-19 halftime lead.

"I went back to my bread and butter, which is the post," said Cousins, the No. 1 center and fourth-ranked overall prospect in the ESPNU 100.

Although LeFlore ended up losing to Fairfax 55-51 in overtime, Cousins was the high scorer with 19 points and Sidney never found his groove. Cousins' standout performance was the theme of the 'Iolani Classic, as he averaged 30.7 points and more than 10 rebounds against three of the best teams in the country, Fairfax, DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) and Oak Hill (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), earning him the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award.

"Even though I killed the whole tournament, I still think I need work in not just one area," said Cousins, who had nine dunks against Oak Hill, the eventual tournament champion. "I need to work on my all-around game. I mean, you can never be perfect, but you can always work to get there."

Cousins has been making big changes off the court, too. As an eighth- and ninth-grader, he played basketball at Erwin (Birmingham, Ala.), but during his sophomore year he was dismissed from the team after being suspended from the school for disciplinary reasons. His family decided it was best to get as far away from the situation as possible, so they moved to Mobile and Cousins enrolled at LeFlore.

"He came over with a renewed perspective," says LeFlore coach Otis Hughley. "It helped him break some old habits. He knew how to pick his spots and ride the wave better. New school, new coaches, new system, new philosophies, he wasn't used to. That was hard for him because his offense was 'Give me the ball and move out of the way.'"

Hughley, a former Division I and JUCO coach, was a driving force for Cousins' family deciding to move because he had a track record of producing student-athletes. In fact, in his five years at LeFlore, his players have an average ACT score of 21 and 42 have received college scholarships, including 21 at Division I programs. (Those numbers don't include his '09 graduating class.) However, Hughley has never had a special talent like Cousins, and he's training him to become more disciplined and a better team player.

"He's a good kid, but sometimes he has a tough time dealing with his frustrations," Hughley said. "He also has to learn that it isn't about him anymore. It's about all his teammates. That wasn't hard for him because he naturally wants to give. It's a maturity process, especially coming from a tough neighborhood. He was picked on when he was small. There were a lot of residuals and consequences that come with that. We're trying to shake all that off. Once he sheds that off, who he really is comes out."

Earlier this year, Cousins announced his intention to stay near home and play for UAB, but with a disclaimer. Cousins wanted UAB to put in writing that if coach Mike Davis was not with the Blazers next season, they would grant him a release from his national letter of intent so he would be able to sign with a different college. That didn't happen and Cousins said, "I'm opened back up now." Although UAB is still in the recruiting mix, Cousins is also weighing offers from Memphis, Louisville, Texas, NC State, Washington, Indiana, Kansas State and Missouri.

This season, Hughley is working with Cousins on his post-up game and conditioning. Hughley said Cousins, who was wincing and holding his stomach during the second half of the Fairfax game, is experiencing "the only time in his life he's really ever conditioned." Cousins' next proving ground is a matchup with blue-chip recruit Derrick Favors of South Atlanta (Ga.), a matchup which will come in a nationally televised game (ESPN2, Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. ET). Beyond that, Cousins' New Year's resolution is winning his first state title after losing in the 6A semifinals last season to Hillcrest (Tuscaloosa, Ala.).

After the LeFlore and Fairfax game reached its conclusion, Cousins was a magnet for children and adults who bum-rushed him for photos and autographs. He patiently posed with every fan. When asked about his Cousins' star status, Hughley said, "He's a rare breed and easy to love.

"In some areas his talent is metamorphic, in others, I can see the progress," Hughley said. "He gets very, very tired at times and it's tough on him. But he doesn't get away from himself. I've gotten to see that he's on to something, and I can see the fruit of it. In my mind, it's clear: He's the best in the country."

Jared Zwerling is a freelance writer in New York.