Durant learns the lessons of stardom for promising Thunder
Kevin Durant was named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2007-08
Thunder coach Scotty Brooks moved Durant to small forward position
Durant has improved three-point shooting from 28.8 percent to 41.9 percent
One year ago Kevin Durant looked overwhelmed. The game swirled around the skinny collegian trying to survive in the NBA. This season, by no small contrast, Durant demands respect. He is a star on the verge -- huskier, less impatient, more assured.
Of course, at 6-9 and 215 pounds he's still on the thin side. But stardom is trending his way. In a very short time, last season's Rookie of the Year learned to let the game come to him, instead of grabbing at opportunities that aren't there.
"I was getting used to the [NBA] game," Durant said. "Every young player coming into the league -- the LeBrons, the Kobes -- they had the same problem, as far as knowing when to shoot and your hot spots on the floor. Everybody gets used to that, and it was tough for me to learn that."
With Greg Oden sidelined all of last season after knee surgery, Durant breezed to the Rookie of the Year award. Rarely, though, did Durant appear in charge. How could he be otherwise? He was 19 with one year of college behind him. The unpopular Sonics were on their way out of Seattle, and he was the best talent on a disheveled roster bereft of leadership following the sudden departures of All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. His 20.3 points came at the expense of 43.0 percent shooting, including an unacceptable 28.8 percent from the three-point line.
One year later he's converting 41.9 percent of his threes, rating him among the league's top 25. Overall he's shooting 46.0 percent while averaging 23.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, but the numbers are secondary to the sense of rhythm with which Durant plays. He no longer appears to be in a senseless hurry. He plays with more command.
"It's so weird saying this -- he's only 20 -- but the maturity level this year is much different than last year," said Thunder interim coach Scott Brooks. "He understands some of the pressure points he needs to put on the defense. Last year he didn't understand that, but you couldn't expect him to understand. He has improved his overall game -- he's rebounding more, he's defending better. Lately there has been a little bit of a turnover issue, but if you tell him one thing, he'll watch film and he's going to work on it."
Brooks' first move after replacing P.J. Carlesimo on Nov. 21 was to shift Durant from shooting guard to small forward, and fellow sophomore Jeff Green from small forward to power forward. The move hasn't seen the now 6-33 Thunder turn around their season, but it has seen Durant score 20 or more points in all but two of the last 18 games while defenses have collapsed upon him. And over the last 26 games, Durant and Green have shot an improved 47.6 percent and 47.2 percent, respectively. Green is averaging 16.1 points and 6.2 rebounds as a frontcourt complement to Durant.
The changes haven't stopped there. Rookie point guard Russell Westbrook, the surprise No. 4 pick in the draft, has been shooting 45.3 percent since he began starting in December. Averaging 14.2 points, 4.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds overall, Westbrook and the young forwards view themselves as the future of the franchise. "We call each other brothers," Durant said. "We do everything together, we talk about everything. No matter whether it's basketball, our girlfriends -- everything. And that's what we need to be for us to grow together and go forward."
The camaraderie seems to be infectious.
"I'm standing in our gym right now, on an off day, and I see eight guys in here working," Brooks said from a phone in Oklahoma City, on the day after a rough 103-99 overtime loss at New Jersey. "I didn't get to bed until four in the morning, but Durant just walked in. Jeff is shooting at basket No. 4. Russell just left, and a lot of other guys are in here. It's a day off after an overtime heartbreaker and we traveled back, and they're all in here today working."
Half of the Thunder's wins have come in the last seven games."We all know that a brighter day is ahead of us," Durant said. To that end, Thunder GM Sam Presti has accrued three first-round picks in this year's draft and two for next year, as well as cap space that could yield a maximum-level offer in each of those summers. Oklahoma City won't be a high-priority destination for the top free agents, but the Thunder could use their picks and cap space to trade for experienced talent from teams seeking to dump salaries.
Durant is intent on not wasting this time. "I tell him constantly, 'Kevin, you have a chance to be a special player in this league -- but if you look at the history of the league, the exceptional players are the two-way players who do it on both ends of the court,'" Brooks said. "Last year it was like a job for 48 minutes to get him down into a defensive stance, not that he didn't want to, but at [6-9] it was hard to get him down defensively. But you see him trying to get better."
Durant is aiming high. "Hopefully I can be more of a 4-3 instead of a 3-4, the type of player who starts off in the post and then moves out," Durant said. "I want to be like a Kevin Garnett-type that can control both ends of the floor with my long arms, blocking shots and stuff like that.
"KG is a great player and person for the game. He shows his emotion every night, even though he's been in this league forever. He's got a championship, MVP, multiple All-Star appearances, but he always continues to work and he always continues to bring that fire. He loves the game. So I have a lot of respect for him. I watch a lot of film on him and watch him throughout his games, and I'm just trying to get there one day and help my team get a championship."