SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - One of the pivotal points in the development of DeMarcus Cousins occurred in a private area of the Sacramento Kings locker room after a home loss to Charlotte last Saturday night.
There, Cousins cornered point guard Isaiah Thomas and spoke candidly about Sacramento's skid. The two decided to call a players-only meeting to air out frustrations and fix problems.
"We were just trying to figure out what we can do to make everybody else around us better," Cousins said. "And what we needed to do better."
In years past, Cousins lacked that leadership initiative.
Of course, little about him this season has resembled the Cousins of old.
The 23-year-old center, who most teammates and coaches just call "Cuz," is having the best season of his career and blossoming into one of the NBA's best big men. He's averaging career highs of 23.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, three assists and 1.9 steals per game. He's also shooting a career-best 49.1 percent.
LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal have said Cousins should make his first All-Star team. Even Sacramento Mayor and former NBA All-Star guard Kevin Johnson is trying to lend his strategic skills to Cousins' campaign, releasing a comical video this week advising Cousins to take a grassroots approach and earn "one vote at a time."
Whether Cousins ever earns All-Star status will likely depend on how he leads the Kings (11-22), who are still buried near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Fair or not, Cousins knows his reputation around the league will rest largely on Sacramento's record - now and in the future.
"I'm trying to come out and lead by example," he said. "Just come out and play with a high energy, and I take the fall for it. I'm not doing a good job of leading these guys. I'm not doing a good job of having my teammates prepared to come out and play every night. As the leader of this team, it's going to fall back on me."
Cousins' behavior entering this season had been well documented going back to high school and his one year at Kentucky.
He mixed in dramatic and astonishing plays with outbursts against players, coaches and referees. He dazzled at times during his first three NBA seasons, and other times struggled with defense and discipline. Just last season, Cousins was reprimanded multiple times for his behavior by the league and the team.
First-year Kings coach Michael Malone has encouraged Cousins to channel his emotion on both ends of the court. While that worked in big wins over Miami, Houston and Portland in the last two weeks, Cousins can still be as emotional as ever - waving his arms in the air after a blatant foul against him, questioning referees' calls and getting in the face of opponents.
Cousins leads the league with 10 technical fouls. Sacramento also is the NBA's second-worst defensive team, allowing 105 points per game. Neither will likely help Cousins' cause.
"I think he's trying to mature and grow into a leader and it's a process," Malone said. "He's not there yet. He has a ways to go in a lot of areas, but that's the exciting thing for me, looking at where he's at and where he can be. He's got so much untapped potential basketball-wise and as a leader."
New Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Pete D'Alessandro are counting on Cousins to keep his cool and lead the franchise back to prominence after seven straight losing seasons. Sacramento signed Cousins to a four-year, $62 million extension on the eve of training camp, and now the team's brass is trying to improve the talent around him.
The Kings acquired Rudy Gay from Toronto in a seven-player deal in early December. They also sent forward Luc Mbah a Moute to Minnesota for former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams in November.
But Cousins still has a long way to go to land in the All-Star Game on Feb. 16 in New Orleans. He finished 12th among frontcourt players in the most recent fan voting released by the league, meaning it'll likely be up to the coaches for Cousins to make the Western Conference roster as a reserve.
At the very least, Cousins has won over his teammates - which is something he also had trouble with in years past.
"As far as talent, he's up there at the top," Gay said. "I don't think anybody thinks different of that. Obviously we have to get this team to where everybody can shine. It's not just about Cuz. It's not just about me. It's about us. He's been here a long time and he's progressed a lot as a player, but I think as we get better, everybody will get noticed."