Doubt to dominance: Xavier Cooks' ascension is leading Boomers' World Cup charge

Gaze: Xavier Cooks taking on Rodman-like role for Boomers (1:07)

Boomers great Andrew Gaze heaps praise on the performance Xavier Cooks delivered against Japan, and how his style of play energises the team. (1:07)

OKINAWA, Japan -- Late in the first quarter of the Australian Boomers' game against Japan on Tuesday, Xavier Cooks rose up for an emphatic, almost disrespectful block off the backboard.

He ended up under the basket.

Fast forward a few seconds, and Cooks was wide open on the opposite free throw line for an easy catch, one dribble, and dunk in transition. He had made the defensive play, but still beat everyone else down the floor.

"I'm just trying to leave everything on the floor," Cooks told ESPN.

"I'm going out there, I'm playing my absolute ass off. I'm tired as heck. Four-minute spurts, but that's what it's about at this level. We have such a deep team that you can afford to blow your tank, get a quick sub, then get back out there."

That sentiment has been obvious when watching Cooks throughout the Boomers' 2023 FIBA World Cup campaign. In that same game, he had 10 offensive rebounds. "Just pure determination, to be honest with you," he said. "A lot of missed shots that I just put back myself." And he continues to be part of Australia's most effective lineups.

Cooks is averaging 14.0 points and 7.7 rebounds a game during this World Cup thus far, to go with 1.7 blocks a contest, but even those impressive numbers don't tell the whole story.

When you dive into the advanced data -- and, granted, the sample size is small -- the Boomers' best defensive lineups have Cooks in them; as does its best offensive groups.

The Washington Wizards forward has turned the ball over zero times -- he knocked on the wooden table in his hotel's lobby when told that stat -- which is impressive for someone who has creation responsibilities, and is the reason why the Boomers can roll out a really effective small ball lineup Brian Goorjian has been leaning on more and more with each game.

"He's a versatile big that can get out on the perimeter and guard," Andrew Bogut, a Boomers legend and former teammate of Cooks, told ESPN on Thursday.

"He's a super disruptor defensively; I think that's the biggest thing for him. He's not the strongest, thickest big you'll find, but I think that's what makes him so valuable. Teams sometimes try to post him, or put a big on him, but he's just so long, athletic, smart that he just manages to get deflections on stuff he shouldn't. His length bothers a lot of people. He just knows how to play.

"In that system, being a role player -- with the Kings, it was a different role for him -- within the flow of a game, running the floor, getting to spots, I think he's invaluable for the team. It's been really good just to see him develop into more and more minutes game to game, and would be interested to see how they use him these next two games."

The Boomers love to switch, and Cooks allows them to do that and not give up too many advantages. On the other end, Cooks does a bit of everything: he slips screens, rolls hard, finds guys on dribble hand-offs, and runs the lanes extremely well in transition. His skillset combined with his energy makes him the ideal complementary player alongside some of the Boomers' more established, ball-dominant players.

"I know if I have a good defender on me, the best role is to be a connector," Cooks said.

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Josh Giddey speaks after the Boomers got back on track with a win over Japan, with a showdown against Slovenia and Mavericks star Luka Doncic next.

"A glue kind of guy. Especially on this team; we have so many guys that can be the dude on their own team. For me, it's important to know my role, and I knew coming in that I wasn't gonna be the MVP Xavier Cooks; I was gonna be the connector, the energy guy, the guy who does the little things, and I'm happy to play that role."

Cooks has the confidence of his coaching staff, too. Ask anyone who was at the Boomers' pre World Cup camp in Cairns, and they'll tell you Cooks was being primed to be a significant part of the team from the very beginning.

When the ball isn't in Josh Giddey's hands, a lot of what Australia does goes through the big at the top of the key. Given Cooks' ability to create, his skillset fit that role perfectly.

"From the first practice of the campaign, we could tell Xavier was gonna be a special part of the group, or brought something we felt we needed," Adam Caporn, a Boomers assistant coach, said. "Not just his defence, but his passing and versatility."

Matt Nielsen, the Boomers' lead assistant, does a lot of the subbing during games for the Boomers, and Goorjian makes sure to let his staff know when he feels he needs Cooks on the floor.

"I called a timeout and I said, 'make sure Xavier's not out too long'," Goorjian said after Australia's win over Japan. "It's one-through-five, the switching, when he's on the floor. I just thought he had such an impact. We were at a higher level to start the game but, when he came in, the switching went to another level, because the big fella was hurting us on the rolls.

"Then we could switch instead of drop, when Xavier came in, and it changed the whole game. The rebounding and the running; he ran that middle line, he stayed attentive on the offensive glass, he passed it, he was a really unique piece, really, versatile in this, and really exciting down the road in our development."

That level of confidence in Cooks -- from outside and within himself -- wasn't always there. The 6'8" forward has always been a difficult player to evaluate. He's undersized for a big, but doesn't shoot it well enough to be a full-time perimeter player. He played some point guard during his time at Winthrop University, but it was tough to see that translate in any considerable way to his pro career.

Even during his time with the Sydney Kings, there were question marks about how good he could be, what his ceiling was, given it was so difficult to put his style of play into any standard box. He would go on to win the Grand Final MVP award after leading his Kings to an NBL championship, then the regular season MVP award en route to another title, and ultimately a four-year deal with the Wizards.

The summation: he's just a really good basketball player who'll make an impact for your team, and maybe we should stop caring about putting people in a box.

"I think he just took him some time to figure out who he is as a player," Bogut said.

"When you're a player coming up, a lot of times you hear what you're not: 'he's not a three-point shooting big, or he's not this'.

"Yeah, but, whatever he is, those things he's really f---ing good at.

"Where his Kings journey was huge, was -- outside of his performances -- there was some continuity with him as an individual, that he's gonna be here for three or four years. I truly believe that, if he was bouncing around on one-year deals like he was in Europe pre-Kings, I don't know if he's in the NBA right now.

"I think it really created some confidence in him. We also backed him and said look, you're our guy; we're paying you as our guy. He grew confidence-wise, you started to see him coming out of his shell. He's not a rah-rah vocal leader, he never will be, but he definitely took some more responsibility with the Kings around being okay with that."

The 28-year-old is one of Australia's most important players, and their upcoming matchup with Slovenia to begin the second round of the World Cup will more-than-likely put a spotlight on that. His ability to be mobile as the Boomers' big defensively -- showing hard on ball screens then recovering -- will be key for Australia against a player like Luka Dončić, and then there's the prospect of some switching lineups leading to him being on an island against the Dallas Mavericks superstar.

"I probably take more pride on the defensive end," Cooks said.

"On that side of the court, I feel like I have more say. I can really impact the floor that way. Offensively, I'm just trying to feed off the other guys and make the sound play. Most of my points are coming off assisted points: guys driving downhill and me cutting off them. My offensive role is just to feed off those guys; set screens, get them open. On defence, I can really implement my skillset, my versatility on the court more."

Cooks had success guarding one-on-one against Dennis Schröder earlier in the tournament. Cooks blocked one of Schröder's jump-shots, which then deterred the German guard from attacking him the next time around in isolation.

Cooks has thought a lot about being in the same situation, but with Dončić sizing him up, and he trusts his size, athleticism, and IQ to be effective in those circumstances.

"Luka's probably one of the top-five best iso players in the world," Cooks said.

"I haven't had much experience guarding that kind of guy. I trust my length, I trust my versatility, and I know I've got a lot of good pieces behind me. So, I know if I get burnt two times, I've got some guys swarming around back there.

"One thing Luka does a good job of is, I try to play defence with a cushion, with a late contest. He does a really good job stepping back to create an even further distance. I've got to really try to focus on closing that gap a little bit and trusting my speed a little bit, and my length."