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Phenomenal Freshman

He headlines perhaps the most formidable group of first-year players in college basketball history, but Texas forward Kevin Durant is in a class by himself -- and should be the first frosh to win player of the year

Posted: Tuesday February 13, 2007 9:26AM; Updated: Tuesday February 13, 2007 9:26AM
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Durant developed a mastery of the game's basics -- including a soft shot, unselfish passing and a low defensive stance -- during years of one-on-one drills.
Durant developed a mastery of the game's basics -- including a soft shot, unselfish passing and a low defensive stance -- during years of one-on-one drills.
Greg Nelson/SI
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By Grant Wahl with special reporting by Luke Winn

He's just a baby, all arms and legs as thin as capellini. Kevin Durant only turned 18 in September, but with his soft, open face he could pass for 15. After a recent loss the Texas freshman walked to meet the press clutching the right hand of his mother, Wanda Pratt, who says she can tell when her son is distraught because "he'll call me Mommy instead of Mom" in text messages. On most nights, just before bedtime, Durant will kneel down to pray and digest a few more pages from a personalized Bible. Asked which book he's reading, Durant flashes a look of palpable pride.

"Numbers," he says.

Funny, those aren't the numbers that most of us mortals associate with Durant, the 6'9" forward whose coltish coming-of-age has put the man in freshman during a historic college season. Take your pick of diabolical digits. Maybe it's K-Smoove's 25.1 points and 11.4 rebounds a game, which make him the only player in the nation's top five in both categories. Maybe it's the mid-eight-figure shoe deal and the multimillion dollar NBA contract that await whenever he decides to turn pro, probably this spring. Maybe it's his pterodactyl-like 7'6" wingspan. Or maybe it's just a simple zero, which happens to be the number of freshmen in the annals of college hoops who've been named national player of the year.

Until, perhaps, 2006-07, the Year of the Freshman, when the prodigies went back to school. "I've had so many people tell me he's the best player in college basketball," Longhorns coach Rick Barnes says of Durant, who'd had an astonishing six 30-plus-point barrages in 10 Big 12 games through Sunday. "People have a hard time saying that because he's a freshman, but class has nothing to do with it." At this point, though, it's still a tight race. Durant's closest rival for player of the year, Wisconsin senior forward Alando Tucker, has inferior stats (20.0 points and 5.3 boards), but his team owns a better record (24-2) than the Longhorns do (17-7).

What's inarguable is this: The new NBA age-minimum rule, which all but forces even the very best high school players to attend a year of college, has coincided with the arrival of a remarkable class and produced a group of rookies for the ages. Freshmen are the new BMOCs in major conferences (like the Pac-10, which has the most quality frosh of any league) and also at mid-majors (like 21-4 Davidson, which is led by first-year point guard Stephen Curry). Yet three freshmen stand out: Durant, whose 37-point, 23-rebound tour de force in a Jan. 31 win at Texas Tech was the single most dominating performance of the season; 7-foot Ohio State center Greg Oden, who's matching newfound offense (15.3 points and 9.4 rebounds) with game-changing defense (2.7 blocks per game); and 6'9" North Carolina forward Brandan Wright (15.0 and 6.5), the most explosive of the three standout freshmen who start for the No. 5 Tar Heels.

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Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl covers college basketball for the magazine and SI.com.

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