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Phenomenal Freshmen
GRANT WAHL
February 19, 2007
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
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February 19, 2007

Phenomenal Freshmen

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

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For years the game's guardians have lamented the sacrifice of American fundamentals at the altar of summer basketball and its glorified pickup games, but Durant's mastery of the basics--his feather-soft shot, his unselfish passing, even his low defensive stance--is a stinging rebuke to those who say it can't be done anymore. None of it happened by accident. "Between the ages of 10 and 16, Kevin put in eight-hour days during the summer [working on basketball drills]," says Taras (Stink) Brown, the coach at the Seat Pleasant (Md.) Activity Center outside Washington, who forbade Durant from playing five-on-five during their winter training sessions so he could concentrate on fundamentals. "Some days I wouldn't pick up a basketball," Durant says. "He'd put 60 minutes on the clock and say I had to do defensive drills the whole time." To toughen up Durant even more, his mother and Brown would make him run sprints up Hunt's Hill, a quad-burner near the rec center that Durant estimates he scaled a thousand times over a six-year period.

Durant's work ethic has only intensified now that he's in Austin. Not only does he start pregame shootarounds 40 minutes before his teammates, lofting jumpers from all over the court with assistant coach Russell Springmann, but he'll also show up for Sunday sessions the day after Big 12 road games when Barnes would prefer that he take it easy. If the gold standard for modern freshmen is Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to the 2003 national title, then Durant is hoping he can go platinum by continuing to surpass Melo's regular-season numbers ( Anthony averaged 22.2 points and 10.0 rebounds) and matching his '03 postseason feats. "[ Syracuse] won the title during my freshman year [of high school]," Durant says. "I watched with my mom, and she said, 'Maybe you could do that one day.'"

Let's be clear, though: If Durant can carry Texas all the way to One Shining Moment in Atlanta, he'll make Anthony's run look easy. Melo was blessed with more experienced teammates, and the 'Cuse was a No. 3 seed. The Longhorns, by contrast, appear headed for a No. 8 seed.

Yet there is one area in which Durant vows he'll be different from Anthony, who withdrew from classes at Syracuse soon after announcing he was leaving for the NBA. "Let's say I did turn pro [after this season]," says Durant. "I'd still go to class anyway because I wouldn't want to jeopardize my team. If I stop going to classes they can lose scholarships." Indeed, according to the NCAA's new formula to determine progress toward graduation, the Academic Progress Rating, Texas won't be penalized if Durant leaves after the school year for the NBA, as long as his eligibility remains intact.

Other players may not have Durant's sense of obligation, though. That's why critics like Texas Tech coach Bob Knight argue that the NCAA has mortgaged any pretense of academic integrity by allowing the NBA age-minimum rule to create one-year rent-a-players who (in theory, at least) could still compete despite skipping out on second-semester classes altogether. Like Knight, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would prefer amending the rule to forbid so-called one-and-done players. "I think kids should be able to go to the NBA if they desire right out of high school," says Coach K. "If someone has that much talent and only a short life as a player, he should be able to do that. However, if he decides to go to college, you need to maintain the integrity of the educational process, and I think you only do that by being there for at least two years."

For his part, NCAA president Myles Brand told SI that while he'd like to see the NBA rule extended to two or three years, he's encouraged by its impact this season both on and off the court. Brand points out that every basketball player now has to meet NCAA-mandated academic standards to enter college and that the majority of freshmen will realize they're not ready for the NBA and end up staying in school.

Even if Durant leaves Texas after only one year, it's hard to deny that his lone season in college hoops will have been beneficial for all parties. "I think the rule is great," Durant says. "If I'd gone straight to the NBA, I don't think I would have been ready as a player or a person." He won't be winning any Rhodes scholarships as Bill Bradley did, but Durant says he learned to play The Star-Spangled Banner in a piano class in addition to taking courses in math, African-American history and acting. What's more, he points out, college has introduced him to social settings he'd never encountered before. "I meet a new person every day," he says. As for basketball, Durant's year in college has raised his game, his weight (from 197 to 217 pounds; he'd like to reach 235 eventually) and his marketability at the next level.

He's still just a baby, after all, and it's that sense of unlimited possibility that stirs the thrum of anticipation surrounding Durant, to say nothing of Oden, Wright and all the other exceptional freshmen in college basketball. "I'm glad I came in with this class," says Durant. "We're making history."

A Rookie Rarity

TEXAS FRESHMAN Kevin Durant (left) ranked fifth in the nation in scoring and fourth in rebounding through Sunday. Over the last 25 years only eight players have finished in the top five in both categories in the same season--but only one of them ( Kurt Thomas) played in a major conference, and none was an underclassman.

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