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Debt not yet repaid, it's Championship or bust for Kings' Cooks

After two NBL seasons heavily interrupted by injury, Xavier Cooks felt like he owed the Sydney Kings.

On the eve of Game 1 in the NBL22 Grand Finals series against Tasmania, the two-way superstar has done all that and more.

"I felt like I owed it to them," Cooks told ESPN. "They gave me a contract and I played about eight games. The money they gave me, I didn't feel I gave them value, so I had to come back and really show them what I'm capable of and give them their money's worth."

Leading the league in rebounds and blocks per game, Cooks has anchored an underrated Sydney defence that has spent the majority of the season in the top three for defensive rating, while often being overshadowed by their lethal weapons on the other side of the floor.

"It was very strange. It felt like a big refresher course," he says of finding continuity of the court.

"I feel like I haven't played basketball at this level for a long time, and I forgot what I was capable of. Once I started, people said 'wow, you're playing way better than I thought', which was the biggest insult I've ever heard. It's a good feeling knowing I can get back to this level but theirs is a lot more to go. I'm just happy to be free from injury."

"The main thing in my opinion was changing the Australian audience and showing them what I'm capable of. I've been doing this in college and Europe. I'm just relieved to do it in front of an Australian audience. I've probably got more love this year than I've got in my whole career. It's a really good feeling. People are really appreciating my hard work and the little things I do for my team."

A finalist for Best Defensive Player and an All-NBL second team member, Cooks was widely viewed as unlucky not to receive first team honours.

"I think I've been pretty solid. I think I might have been snubbed a little on that first team, but I can't take any credit from Vic Law or Jo Lual-Acuil. I'm pretty happy with my season, I think I've been solid on defence and efficient on offence as well."

Forming a dynamic pick-and-roll partnership with Jaylen Adams, even Cooks admits he has been shocked by the MVP's level of play in his first season in Australia.

"I didn't know he was capable of this," Cooks laughs.

"This man is unbelievable. I knew he was meant to be really good, but they say that about every import, but Jaylen is next level. To do what he's done during the season is just remarkable. and then to go into the playoffs and drop 59 points.

"His offensive ability overshadows his defensive ability. It's something he doesn't get credit for, his defensive ability but I think that's a lot of people on our team."

"He just knows the ins and outs. Sometimes when you bring Americans in, they can get buckets, but they don't know how to play team basketball. I think that's what really is unique with Jaylen, he knows how to get everyone involved, he knows how to read the on ball, he's just a great teammate."

Cooks and the Kings move on after dispatching the Illawarra Hawks in two games in the semifinal series, which followed two classic meetings to end the regular season.

"Those games, all four games were unbelievably intense. Those boys came to play. We were lucky to above them, but I think it was great preparation for the Grand Final, the intensity. It was a good test for us."

In contrast to the high-powered Hawks offence, the Kings will now face the grind-it-out JackJumpers, who make up for their offensive limitations with a hardnosed defensive style that has consistently unsettled teams throughout NBL22.

"They do a really good job of slowing the game down. They're small but they crash the rebounds really well. It doesn't change too much because we don't change our gameplan based on the opponent. We're going to play Kings basketball. It's a different alignment, but we'll be ready for them boys."

While many like to shy away from the pressure and deny nerves, Cooks admits he is always on edge before stepping on the court.

"I'm trying not to think about the game as much as possible because I am a nervous wreck, man," he says with a laugh.

"Even going into the Illawarra series, I couldn't eat before games. Just hearing the roar from the crowd got my blood flowing, so I'll probably just follow the scouting report, just treat it like any other game and then when I get to the arena it will be game time."

"I've got a really weird thing. I just go out and talk to the guys on the other team, ask them if they are nervous. It just takes the nerves off and make it feel like we are having fun. This is why we play basketball, it's to have fun. The higher-level you play the pressure builds but the core root of it is to have fun, so we'll do that and see how we go."

Through it all, Cooks is modest in his assessment of his personal game, but perhaps it actually stems from his competitive nature. After all the injury turmoil in recent seasons, he cut off the question when asked what would constitute a successful season.

"A championship," he declared. "I came here to win a championship with this team and hopefully we can get that done. That's how you judge a good season."

Over the next five games, Cooks and the Kings have a chance to make NBL22 a success.