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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.
All three (and assuredly Durant or Oden) would likely have been selected before No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani in last year's anemic NBA draft. But thanks to the new rule, all three ended up on campus. "I've been in college basketball since 1978, and I've never seen a class that was this good at the top and this deep," says Tennessee's Bruce Pearl, the only coach whose team has played against Durant, Oden and Wright. In the same breath Pearl compares Durant with Tracy McGrady, Oden with Bill Russell and Wright with Kevin Garnett. "I think all three have a chance to be top 50, legendary NBA players," Pearl says, and even though Coach Rocky Top has a hell of a sense of humor--this is the same guy who wore orange body paint on his chest to a recent Tennessee women's game--this time he's not laughing.
While it's too soon to make a ruling, the question is at least worth asking: Is this the greatest freshman class of all time? Granted, freshmen only became eligible in 1972--73, which prevented several stars of the '50s and '60s from reaching transcendence at an even earlier age (page 32). What's more, today's freshmen can have a bigger impact because the older classes (depleted by defections to the NBA) aren't as stocked with talent as they were in previous decades. Still, don't sell these guys short. As longtime scouting guru Bob Gibbons says, "In terms of immediate impact this class could be ranked right near the top in the past 30 years."
That's rare air indeed. The preeminent freshman class in history is generally regarded as the group that arrived in 1979--80 (led by Indiana's Isiah Thomas, Virginia's Ralph Sampson, UNC's James Worthy and Georgia's Dominique Wilkins), followed by '81--82 ( UNC's Michael Jordan, Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, Auburn's Charles Barkley and Chris Mullin of St. John's), '88--89 ( Duke's Christian Laettner, Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning, LSU's Chris Jackson and Syracuse's Billy Owens) and 2002--03 ( Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony, Duke's J.J. Redick, UNC's Sean May and Georgia Tech's Chris Bosh).
Should Oden and Durant declare for the NBA draft after this season, the debate over which player would be taken No. 1 overall will generate the sort of buzz that's an order of magnitude higher than the dull roar of recent weeks. In terms of college performance, however, there's no question that Durant has enjoyed a superior season, not least because he counts on far less support from his teammates than Oden does. The trade-off is significant: Oden is a classic low-post big man whose No. 3--ranked Buckeyes (22--3) are genuine national-title contenders, while Durant is given the kind of freedom to roam the court that's rare at any level of the sport.
"Here's what I think," says Barnes. "If I went into this season knowing we didn't have a point guard and had said, 'Kevin, you have to be our point guard,' he could have done that. If I said to him, 'You've got to be a low-post player and stay there,' Kevin would do that. So what we've done this year is let him do all of it. I told him when we recruited him: 'You should want it all. I'm talking about the impact you can have on your sport and on other people. Look at Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, the great ones. There's more to it than what you see on the court. You're one of those guys.' I'm just not sure he can understand that yet."
Then again, maybe he does. "I want to be one of the best players to ever play the game," Durant says. How does saying that make him feel: confident or nervous? "A little bit of both," he admits. "I just want to accomplish my goals and keep working if I make it to the league one day." If I make it to the league one day? Is this kid for real?
Sometimes it's hard to know. Only minutes after Durant had torched Baylor for 34 points and nine boards in an 84--79 win on Jan. 27, he was almost apologizing for yet another sick box-score line. "I could have played much better, man," he said, shaking his head. "Could have rebounded more, could have played better defense. I just have to improve on my weaknesses."