Growing up in the New York City suburb of Mt. Vernon, Oklahoma point guard Isaiah Cousins was raised with a type of confidence specific to the town. It’s a confidence that comes from a tradition of winning basketball, one that extends back to 60s.
Mt. Vernon was runner-up for the first organized state championship and has won five since 1991, a total that is best among public schools in New York state history. That’s the basketball environment – one that has produced nine NBA players and 18 Division-I players – that Cousins was a part of as a boy.
“You grow up, eating and sleeping and drinking basketball,” said Oklahoma coach Lew Hill, who also attended Mt. Vernon High School.
Cousins had that swagger when he came to Oklahoma, and he has never lost it. It’s just now with Cousins moving back to the full-time point guard for the No. 7 Oklahoma Sooners that the rest of the team is starting play with that same confidence.
“He’s gotten it full-time,” Hill said of the point guard spot. “He wanted it. That’s what he wanted to do. It helps him for his future, and now, he’s growing into it. . . . The game is becoming simpler for him.”
After playing point guard sparingly in high school, Cousins was thrown into the fire a freshman and asked to play point guard for Oklahoma (6-0). He wasn’t ready, though and barely eclipsed 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while playing in 32 games.
But there were flashes at times in that first year, an explosive play here and there that gave the coaching staff the belief that he could do it.
Fast forward two years and even NBA scouts are starting to take notice of Cousins’ point guard potential after he turned in his best game running the offense for Oklahoma – 19 points, a career-high 10 assists and six rebounds in a 23-point victory against Villanova.
His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1.
“It’s just changing pace and making the simple plays,” said Cousins, who was the back-up point guard last year. “. . . I’m not having to do anything too fancy.”
That was the main lesson he learned from the coaching staff after expressing a desire to take over as the starting point guard in the spring.
Neither Lon Kruger nor any of the assistants ever had to suggest to Cousins that he get in the gym to work his point guard-specific skills. He was already there, working on his shot and eventually finding his mid-range game again – something Hill called Cousins’ “abandoned girlfriend” when the guard stopped using it.
Cousins figured out how to change speeds, down-shifting like he couldn’t as a freshman at the right moments to create space for his teammates and shots for himself.
He started using screens better and not wasting dribbles.
Cousins even went home, arguably a Mecca for basketball in the United States, for the summer and worked out with a few trainers who he said have worked with NBA players.
“He’s more mature now,” teammate and roommate Buddy Hield said. “He’s way more mature than he was in the past years. . . . He’s just out there having fun and living life and enjoying college basketball and enjoying every part that’s coming. That game is just slowing down now.”
Through the first six games of the season, Oklahoma is shooting 46.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc and 48.6 percent as a team. That’s up five percentage points from last year and more than 10 percent from deep.
It’s not all Cousins, but he’s making a difference and still shooting better than 50 percent from behind the arc. Cousins knocked down a Big 12-best 45 percent of his 3-pointers last year.
“He’s worked so hard on his shot and make good plays, being strong with the ball and explosive out of the backcourt,” Kruger said.
Cousins has also started to work closer with Kruger, who was a two-time Big 8 Player of the Year as a point guard at Kansas State. The two have started watching film exclusively together, developing the necessary relationship that a point guard and a coach must have to be in-sync.
“We re-affirmed it and encouraged it after he’d do it, but it wasn’t like we had to twist his arm to do it.”
Cousins was locked in against Villanova, in the Sooners’ first top-10 matchup under Kruger. He sped up when the Sooners needed a faster pace. He slowed down at the right moments to create baskets. He was having game success at an elite level. A few days later, Cousins just laughed off the success. He called it “one of the good games.”
Months earlier, Hield told his roommate that he had to play point guard. It was Cousins’ ticket to playing at the next level. Cousins’ skillset was perfect for point guard: Elite shot, talented ball skills, explosive speed in the open court and lock-down defensive ability.
He had already shown flashes of what he could be.
Now, he’s showing the nearly completed product and giving his teammates the confidence to be Final Four contenders.
“He’s being a leader out there,” Hield said. “He’s being the point guard and a floor general and just controlling everything. It’s been good for us. He’s just going to keep getting better.”