LAS VEGAS — DeMarcus Cousins has everything USA Basketball is looking for in a big man.
He has the size and strength to be an imposing presence in the paint on a roster that is lacking in the frontcourt. He has the shooting touch and passing skills to make him a perfect fit in international play and in coach Mike Krzyzewski's system. And he has the confidence not to back down against the best competition the United States has to offer.
The best-case scenario for this young American team going forward would be to have Cousins emerge as a future building block and reliable contributor to a team that will compete for the World Cup in Spain next summer. And the best-case scenario for Cousins would be to get the kind of structure and guidance that Krzyzewski and managing director Jerry Colangelo can provide to a 22-year-old who has had precious little of either during a volatile first three seasons in the NBA.
"I believe I mature after every season," Cousins said after working out with 27 other young players at a USA Basketball minicamp on the UNLV campus. "I believe people forget I am just 22. At the same time I've got a big responsibility. It's going to take me time, and I'm still learning. But I believe I do improve every year."
It can be easy to forget that Cousins won't turn 23 until August. The Sacramento Kings drafted him fifth overall in 2010, and he's been in the headlines so often in his first three seasons in the league that it seems like he's been a pro for much longer. He's averaged nearly a double-double — 16.3 points, 9.8 rebounds — in three seasons, but has also gained a hot-head reputation for several suspensions and fines during his time in Sacramento.
He was in Las Vegas last year as part of the U.S. select team that practiced against the Olympic team in the run-up to the London Games, but that ended on a sour note after a disagreement with Colangelo. That didn't stop Colangelo from inviting him back this summer for a four-day camp featuring some of the rising young stars in the game.
The only player with Olympic experience at the camp is New Orleans forward Anthony Davis. With no competition to prepare for this summer, Colangelo and Krzyzewski are using this week to identify and develop some of the country's younger talent. As far as Colangelo was concerned, there was no question that Cousins' name belonged on the list.
"Last year it wasn't a good situation at the end of the day," Colangelo said. "This time around, it's a clean slate for every one of the players. So we're starting from scratch. ... No harm, no foul."
The gesture seems to have resonated with Cousins, even if he didn't agree with how his time here last year was portrayed.
"I believe the whole thing was blown out of proportion," Cousins said. "What was said between us really wasn't as bad as it (seemed). For him to just push that aside and give me another chance, I'm very thankful for it. I'm going to come in here and make the best of opportunity."
Cousins said there was a time not long ago when he wouldn't have accepted the invitation to come back to Vegas, with his pride getting in the way. The fact that he's here, in his eyes, is proof of maturity.
"I could've been stubborn and been like, 'Forget that. You had your chance at me,'" Cousins said. "But I'm going to come in and make the best of my opportunity."
It's a summer of fresh starts for Cousins, who will be playing for a new coach, a new general manager and a new ownership group that bought the Kings from the Maloof brothers to ensure the franchise stayed in Sacramento. Several team officials, including head coach Mike Malone, visited him at his Alabama home earlier this offseason, and they've gone out of their way to make him feel wanted. New GM Pete D'Alessandro has already called Cousins the face of the franchise.
"It comes with a lot of responsibility, but that being said, it's something I already knew," Cousins said. "But I'm glad it's finally being said. I mean I'm going to take this opportunity and I'm going to do my damn best. Hopefully, I can lead this team to some wins."
John Calipari coached Cousins in college at Kentucky and has spoken with members of the Kings organization and offered his views on how best to work with Cousins.
"I used to tell the Maloofs, 'You get him right, he's an All-Star,'" Calipari said. "And he's young. You can't get guys like that."
Being here with USA Basketball may be the first step for Cousins in putting it all together.
"What's going on for him here is the best thing for his career, being coached by these guys, being in this, taking pride in something other than himself," Calipari said. "It's about this organization. If you want to make it, you make everybody better or you're not making the team."