The NBA journey of the brightest NBA talent for the next decade has so far been measured, ironically, by what he is not. It started in 2006, when Kevin Durant was listed as the #2 national recruit for college teams, behind Greg Oden.
Despite having a superlative year as a freshman at the University of Texas, winning a host of awards including the prestigious Naismith College Player of the Year (first freshman to do so ever) Durant was still not the player Portland wanted to draft #1 in 2007.
He was drafted no. 2, right after Greg Oden – a legitimate seven-footer many believed would be Tim Duncan’s heir – because conventional basketball wisdom dictates that the post always trumps the perimeter.
After his freshman year in college, Nike came calling. In the NBA, a young player is measured, for better or for worse, by the value of the shoe deals he signs. Nike offered Durant a 60 million dollar contract, the second highest shoe deal in history, after – guess who – LeBron James (90 mil).
The guy most college basketball insiders consider is the greatest freshman in college basketball history, was simply not LeBron James, prep-to-pro legend, monster athlete, freight train, the king.
Basketball greatness is not new to KD. He got a taste of national championship success in middle-school, teaming up with future #2 pick Michael Beasley for the ride. He opted to attend the prestigious Oak Hill Academy for high school – alma mater of Carmelo Anthony – which has consistently been the no. 1 high school for ballers.
There he played with Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson – few NBA players have played with that caliber of teammates in school.
Drafted into the NBA by an awful Seattle Supersonics team along with Jeff Green (#5 pick,, 2007), KD was handed the keys to the team and asked to carry everybody on his back. In his first two seasons, Durant played a ton of minutes, scored a ton of points, and impressed everybody.
Yet, as the Sonics moved from Seattle to Oklahoma to become the Thunder, they lost a ton of games under Durant. In his first two seasons, Durant’s teams had a 43-121 record despite him averaging 22 ppg on 45% shooting. What’s worse, advanced statistics showed that Durant was in fact hurting his team’s chances of winning.
Adjusted +/- is a comprehensive stat NBA teams use to gauge player productivity which reflects the number of points by which a team outscores/is outscored by its opponents when a particular player is on the court, adjusted for the quality of the opposition as well as the quality of his teammates.
By this metric, over two seasons, KD had a rating of -7.4, which means irrespective of opposition and teammates, the Thunder gave up in excess of seven points a game when Durant was on the floor, much worse than any of his four fellow starters.
Durant didn’t think much of Truehoop’s post on this, responding via twitter: “I love all the REAL basketball fans who appreciate hardwork, passion and love for the game..and not jus “plus and minuses”…wateva dat is!”
In his first two seasons, Durant struggled mightily in adjusting to the NBA’s pick-and-roll game. He took inefficient shots on offense while coming off picks, and was often caught in no man’s land while defending it as well.
So young Kevin Durant took Truehoop’s advice and worked on his pick-and-roll game. By his third NBA season, the Thunder won 50 games, the biggest turnaround in the NBA that season. KD’s scoring average jumped from 23 to 30 ppg. His Player Efficiency Rating jumped from 20 to 26.
By then, Kevin Durant was second only to one. He has reeled off three consecutive scoring titles. He is the arguably the best player in the NBA on offense. He has a quick-trigger release to his jump-shot, which is near un-blockable.
His shooting form is so pure and smooth that Ray Allen’s probably jealous. He’s quick, he’s fast and he’s deadly. But he isn’t, so far, LeBron James, and that’s what he is now measured by.
The Thunder have steadily improved over the last three years, making it from the first round of the playoffs (2010), to the conference finals (2011) and finally the NBA Finals (2012). They have overcome all obstacles in their path, just like their leader, Kevin Durant, whose adjusted +/- is now + 1.12. He’s a winner, by any statistical measure. But he just isn’t quite there yet, in the same plane as LeBron James.
His offensive prowess was on full display in the Finals last season, especially when he scored a combined 33 points in the fourth quarters of Game 1 and 2. But James was right with him, notching up three triple-doubles in the series, averaging double digit rebounds for the series, filling up the box score in a manner that Durant is still learning. The end result of the Finals was NBA gold for LeBron and tears for Durant – tears on international TV – and alas, a second place finish.
The questions for next season will predictably concern his playmaking skills and defensive commitment. He has improved steadily on defense (101 Defensive Rating last season) and on passing out of the double team as well. But there’s no question he can be better in both categories.
The number of free throws he has attempted per game have almost halved since his breakout 2010 season, understandably so given Russell Westbrook’s ball dominating ways. Any smart basketball fan would bet good money on Durant surmounting this last obstacle, this last shadow he must grow out of to being his own man, an undisputed champion. That, after all, is how he learned to play basketball.
Dallas Morning News’ Chip Brown writes of Durant’s unwavering work ethic in middle school, when he first took the game of basketball seriously. His mother, Wanda Pratt, and coach Taras Brown instilled decided to push him hard, to see how he would respond. Outside the activity center where Durant worked on his game when he was 11 is a 50-yard steep incline that Durant calls ‘the Hill’.
Whenever Wanda or Taras were unhappy with Durant’s commitment, he had to run the hill. Once, as a young middle school kid, he ran the hill 75 times. “I couldn’t walk the next day,” Durant said to Brown.
Things are not very different now. The Thunder’s road to the Larry O’Brien trophy will feature two stacked rosters, All-Star caliber teams that are, on paper, better than the Thunder. Durant will still have to run the hill because LeBron James is right there beside him, running faster, getting stronger.
This offseason, like the last, Durant trained with LeBron. Against LeBron, one-on-one. They also played together at London, where Team USA won the basketball gold medal. LeBron was the go-to guy for that team. The leader of that team. “We pushed each other every day,” James said to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst about last year’s workouts. “At the time, I envisioned us getting to (the Finals) against each other.”
Round one belongs to LeBron, but you can bet good money that KD’s running that hill whatever chance he gets. Because he always gets better. Because one day, he’s going to grow out of LeBron’s shadow and take the crown. And for that, he needs to keep running.
SportsKeeda NBA Top 20
20. James Harden
19. Chris Bosh
18. LaMarcus Aldridge
17. Pau Gasol
16. Dirk Nowitzki (for 20-16, read here)
15. Blake Griffin
14. Tony Parker
13. Andrew Bynum
12. Russell Westbrook
11. Carmelo Anthony (for 15-11, read here)
10. Kevin Love
9. Derrick Rose
7. Dwyane Wade
6. Kobe Bryant
5. Rajon Rondo
3. Chris Paul
2. Kevin Durant