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Sydney Kings' Xavier Cooks no longer the forgotten star

It wasn't the start newly signed Sydney Kings head coach Chase Buford was after. Stuck in quarantine after contracting COVID-19, Buford continued to pour over film, conduct zoom calls and do whatever he could to prepare for NBL22.

Throughout his scouting from long distance, one player continued to draw his attention.

Xavier Cooks.

Nine months later, Cooks claimed NBL Grand Final MVP honours, as the Kings claimed their first championship in 17 years.

"He even exceeded my expectations of what I thought he could do," Buford told ESPN postgame. "He's just such a competitor. He's willing to do every little thing to help the team win and you saw it throughout the series.

"Xavier was as good as any other Aussie in the league and as good as any big guy in the league for my money."

Reduced to only a handful of games across his first two seasons with the Kings due to knee and ankle injuries, Cooks reminded Australian basketball fans why he has long been regarded an NBA talent.

Dynamic defensively and an excellent passer for his size, Cooks has proven a matchup nightmare for the league.

"He's relentless. He works hard, he comes to play every game and he gives us that energy that we need," Ian Clark said.

While his game often makes the highlight reels with explosive dunks and electric plays in transition, arguably Cooks' greatest value comes with the dirty work, with his desire to engage in physical play coming to the forefront throughout a dominant Grand Final series.

"He shares my passion for basketball and practice. He likes coming to work every day and I like that about him," Buford said.

"He's a blast, he's fired up every time he makes a play and he's just laying his heart out there every time. You dream about coaching guys like that."

The bumps and bruises from battling a relentless Tasmania JackJumpers lineup were on full display on Thursday morning, with Cooks gingerly moving and looking a little sleepy, albeit, with a big smile on his face.

"I surprised myself a little bit with the performance this series. It's going to take a while for this one to sink in. I'll probably go back and watch the game today to relive the moments but it's a great feeling."

Acknowledging his injuries had started to take a mental toll at times, Cooks was quick to tip his hat to teammates Angus Glover and DJ Vasiljevic who played major roles after extended layoffs with knee and achilles injuries respectively.

"Both those guys have unbelievable stories. DJ having a major achilles injury and Gus having all those knee injuries, to bounce back the way they did and not just be on the team but contribute the way they did (is amazing). To be on top, to be champions right now, means the world to myself and to them.

"It was one of the best days of my basketball career yesterday. Being able to cherish the moment with my friends and family and loved ones all around me means a lot. For Jaylen (Adams) to have his parents here, coach (Buford) had his family here, it's something we will all cherish for a long, long, time."

Prior to the series, Cooks expressed his desire to repay the "debt" he felt he owed the Kings for spending extended time on the sidelines. One week later he had not only completed his first healthy season in years but claimed the MVP trophy in the process.

"It feels good to fulfil my debt to these boys. To bring this back to Sydney and all these great people in the stadium, there's no better feeling."

No longer the forgotten star of Australian hoops, the only question that remains is what's next for Cooks. With health concerns in the rear vision mirror, the Kings may have a hard time keeping him on Australian hardwood.

"It's been special to coach him and hopefully it continues for a few more years unless he's playing in the big show," Buford said with a smile.