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DeMarcus Cousins looks ahead to taking the next step in his comeback

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Warriors center Demarcus Cousins (0) tries a reverse layup along the baseline past 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) during the first quarter of the game on January 31, 2019 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner)

OAKLAND — DeMarcus Cousins knows the struggles of recovering from an Achilles injury. His rupture on Jan. 26, 2018 forced him to miss nearly 12 months, and caused his free agent market to dry up, to the point where he used his “nuclear option” and signed with the Golden State Warriors for the veteran’s minimum.

When his friend and former Kentucky teammate John Wall ruptured his left Achilles tendon in a fall at home, and then had to undergo a second surgery to address an infection — forcing him to miss the rest of this season, and likely all of next season — Cousins gave him a call.

“I know John pretty well, and he’s a pretty mentally-strong guy,” Cousins said after Warriors practice on Tuesday. “I basically told him to prepare for the hard days, because there’s a lot of them. Through it all, just try to make sure you better yourself each day.”

Cousins, like Wall, a 2010 first-round NBA Draft pick, counseled his longtime friend on patience. He’s had to have plenty so far this season. After missing the first 45 games, Cousins has averaged 22.7 minutes per game this season, and, as he works to crack the 25-minute mark in a game, feels there’s a next step he wants to take. Golden State is making sure he takes it slowly.

“We still got to stick to this program or process, whatever you want to label it, and gradually go through the steps until we get to the next step,” Cousins said. “I believe that time is coming, some time near. Just try to perfect this first step, and be prepared for the next step.”

Wednesday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs will be Cousins’ eighth of the season. He hasn’t played more than 25:07 — that came against the Philadelphia 76ers — and he’s only really faced one true test in the post, in Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. He’ll face another test on Wednesday against LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s averaging 21.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. On Friday, he’ll face gifted Phoenix Suns’ rookie DeAndre Ayton, who’s averaging 16.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.

“It’s not anything that I think about,” said head coach Steve Kerr, when asked if there are certain games — like Wednesday or against the 76ers — that he uses as a measuring stick. “It doesn’t really matter. We play the Spurs [Wednesday], and then we play Phoenix and Miami. It’s not like we’re going to change anything. But, you will get to see him play individual match-ups against a variety of centers, and I imagine that will be good for our fans to see that. He’s just going to play whoever’s out there, and it doesn’t alter our thinking, in terms of who his opponent is.”

So far in his limited time back, Cousins has averaged 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 4.0 fouls in his 22.7 minutes.

While Cousins has shown flashes of the ability that’s made him a four-time All-Star, like his thunderous dunk against the Los Angeles Clippers in his first game back and an even more emphatic, posterizing slam at the expense of the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma on Saturday, Cousins is still working on his conditioning.

“I feel like I’ve been decent, OK,” Cousins said. “Still got to get into basketball shape, the way I want to be. I’ve gotten somewhat more comfortable on the floor. Still got a ways to go with that, but I know I’ve still got a lot of room to grow, and I’ll get a lot better. I’m excited about that … I think it’s really just coming down to the conditioning, and how I play through different situations. They haven’t really given me a specific answer to what it takes to get to the next step, but I believe it’s just the performance aspect and the conditioning aspect.”

Cousins has to wait for trainer Rick Celebrini to give the all-clear before he and the Warriors get to truly see what the team looks like with him fully integrated into the lineup, rather than him playing in five-minute bursts at the start of each quarter.

“That’s the only thing holding us back,” Kerr said. “Rick has final say on all of his stuff. DeMarcus looks great. Conditioning looks better. He’s getting his rhythm, his timing. He’s only been back two weeks from an injury that kept him out a year. We’re not going to rush anything.”

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