Wolves made poor choice in character vs. talent

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2012 - 11:44 AM

Who would you rather have now, DeMarcus Cousins or Wes Johnson?

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Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (right, guarding the Wolves' Nikola Pekovic) played about as poorly as he can Tuesday night in Minnesota's 86-84 victory, and he still produced his ninth double-double in 11 games.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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David Kahn should send Nikola Pekovic a gift this morning. Maybe a dessert. Whatever Serbian bouncers wearing skull tattoos on their arms enjoy after a big meal, like the bones of their forefathers' enemies.

Pekovic, now the Wolves' unquestioned starting center, dominated his matchup with could-have-been Wolf DeMarcus Cousins on Tuesday, giving Minnesotans temporary respite from regret. Those who don't overreact to individual games should still groan every time they remember the night of June 24, 2010, when Kahn, the Wolves' basketball boss, bought a ticket to the light rail instead of taking a ride on the crazy train.

At first, the debate over the fourth pick in the 2010 draft revolved around basketball philosophy. Would you rather have a polished wing or a promising but immature center? In the last two years, it has become a question of character. Would you rather have a nice guy who plays horribly or an immense talent who might get his coach fired?

Kahn chose Syracuse wing Wes Johnson over Cousins, the young center from Kentucky. Johnson was safe. Cousins is becoming the Randy Moss of that draft.

Johnson is the classic productive collegian who can't handle the speed of the NBA; Cousins, while occasionally dominating, demanded a trade this winter, leading to the dismissal of his first NBA coach, Paul Westphal.

So who would you rather have now?

The better question is: How could any Minnesotan not want Cousins?

Cousins could have given the Wolves three All-Star-caliber players, along with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. He is averaging 15.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Tuesday, Cousins immediately got into foul trouble, and Pekovic's physical play and defense limited him to 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting. Cousins also produced 11 rebounds in the Wolves' 86-84 victory.

To put it another way: Cousins performed about as poorly as he can, against a powerful defender, and still produced his ninth double-double in 11 games while playing only 25 minutes. Johnson produced seven points and no rebounds or assists in 25 minutes.

Minnesotans should know that talented players are often worth the risk.

Cris Carter was an erratic receiver and a substance abuser when he played for the Philadelphia Eagles. Mike Lynn brought him to Minnesota and he retired as, statistically, the second-best receiver in NFL history.

Moss, the most talented receiver in history, fell to 21st in the 1998 draft because of his defiance and transgressions. He lived up to his volatile reputation in the pros. He also elevated the Vikings' performance on the field and popularity in the state before coming within a miracle comeback in the Super Bowl of being the most talented player on the first 19-0 team in NFL history.

Before they helped destroy a season and get Flip Saunders fired, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell brought the Wolves to their only conference finals appearance in franchise history.

"He's been great," said Keith Smart, Westphal's replacement, of Cousins. "How he's performing on the floor, keeping his emotions in check ... that's the way he's going to become a really good player, keeping that all under control and still playing at a really high level.

"He's probably come as far as fast as I could have imagined in this period of time. ... So far, he's been fabulous.''

Johnson's struggles are so obvious that there were fans last night starting the first ever "Mar-tell Web-ster" chant in NBA history.

While Wolves coach Rick Adelman limited Wes Johnson to five seconds in the fourth quarter, Cousins almost won the game. In the final seconds, he drove the baseline, executed a spin move to the basket that few big men could manage, and kicked the ball to the corner for an open three-pointer.

Donte Greene missed. Cousins lingered at midcourt, slapped Greene's hand, smiled and walked off with his teammates.

Cousins is a rare talent. Plus, he might have gotten his first Wolves coach fired, doing everyone a favor.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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