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Durant grew up in Suitland, Md., a half hour outside Washington, D.C., with his mother, Wanda, a postal worker, and his father, Wayne, a police officer. When he was 10, Kevin began working out with a rec-center coach, a tough-love type named Taras Brown, whom everybody called Stink. He would run Durant through all manner of drills, including defensive slides and grueling hill sprints, all of which—from the perspective of a 10-year-old—really sucked. But one in particular stood out in that regard: let's call it The Frozen Shot of Death. Brown would order the spindly Durant to lie on his back with a pillow under his head and hold up a medicine ball as if about to shoot it, elbow cocked. "I was supposed to hold it there for an hour," remembers Durant. "An hour!" The first thing to go would be his right shoulder, which graduated from searing pain into a throbbing if welcome numbness. Helping support the ball with his left hand didn't help, "because then that one started to hurt too." It was the only one of Brown's drills that Durant ever walked out on in their six fun-free years together. Even so, two hours after leaving, Durant returned, wordlessly, and picked that ball back up. "I was never sure what that drill was for," says Durant, "but I know it's those types of drills that made me who I am today."
Indeed, 10 years later Durant still eagerly wants to please, a trait not commonly found in 29-point-a-game scorers. "You can tell him, 'O.K., Kevin, we're going to do 20 push-ups between shots,'" says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "And he does it! He does it!" Assistant coach Ron Adams describes how Durant is constantly asking for feedback, even during games. And Idan Ravin, a trainer who works with many NBA players, says he purposely set his first workout with Durant at an awkward time and place just to see how Durant would respond. He got there 20 minutes before Ravin. "It's important to make a good first impression," says Durant.
This is not, as Brooks stresses, "just putting on a show," either. Durant takes the first bus to the arena on game days. He arrives an hour early for practices and stays two hours after. When he was in high school, he spent so much time carrying around a basketball that his friends used to tease him because his T-shirts—always white, always baggy—had a mosaic of ball prints on them. "I've been around the league a long time and seen a lot of guys," says Thunder reserve guard Kevin Ollie, who, in fact, has played on 13 teams. "And he's the most prepared guy I've seen."
Of course, there are plenty of NBA players who work hard, but few if any have the combination of Durant's talents and his unique physique. From his armpit to the tip of his middle finger, Durant's arms are 36 inches long. This may not sound that impressive until you consider that the average broomstick is 38 inches.
Durant's reach is unusual even among outsized professional athletes, and it can make him an awkward sight. Whereas most players raise the ball from their thigh on a free throw, Durant begins below his knees. When he dribbles, he appears to be reaching down to pet a small dog, so low is the ball, yet he is able to do so without bending much at the waist or crouching. But while his wingspan has hindered his ability to find suit jackets and gain strength—even though he lifts daily, he says "for all those who want to know, I still can't bench 185 pounds"—it provides a wonderful array of uses on a basketball court.
Most of them, however, have been employed on the offensive end as Durant's abilities as a scorer continue to evolve. Compared with 2008--09, according to detailed statistics from HoopData.com, he's finishing a higher percentage of shots at the rim (74.0% to 68.0%), completing more and-ones (3.3% to 2.8%) and getting fewer shots blocked (4.2% to 4.8%), all of which are a testament to his improved ability to attack the basket. He's also shooting a much higher percentage on midrange jumpers—46.3% to 35.0%—attributable to practice and Brooks's offense, which relies heavily on pin downs and curls to free Durant for free-throw-line jumpers. ("My sweet spot," he says.) And, counterintuitively, he is scoring on fewer assisted baskets than last season, a difference Brooks attributes to Durant's getting out more in transition, where he can employ the Eurostep (a fake-one-way-go-the-other, open-court move that's all the rage on the Continent), which he picked up in the off-season. (Interestingly, he modeled it not on an actual European, but on Sacramento rookie Tyreke Evans.) Watch Durant and you'll notice that he's added other, veteran ploys, such as bringing the ball up through a defender's arm to draw a shooting foul, à la Duncan and Reggie Miller, and emphasizing contact to get to the line. (After one successful such instance against Dallas last week, Mavs guard Jason Terry turned to the bench and sarcastically announced, "Congratulations, meet Michael Jordan!")
Defense, however, has been another matter. Durant admits that when he got out of position in the past, it was because "either I didn't know the schemes or was being lazy." This season, however, he came to camp determined, as he says, "to let my defense lead to my offense." The addition to the coaching staff of Adams, a defensive specialist, midway through last season helped in this respect, though not necessarily for the reason one might think. "Ron doesn't teach me schemes or how to guard people," says Durant. "He just gets on me and makes me feel bad."
Whatever the motivation, Durant has gone from being a bad defender to an above-average one. He leads the team in steals, bites on fewer pump-fakes (and when he does, he at least tries to recover) and is getting better on rotations and helpside D. It shows in the numbers. Whereas last season Oklahoma City was a drastically worse defensive team when Durant was in the game—the Thunder allowed 8.2 points more per 100 possessions when he was on the floor versus off—this season he is having the opposite effect: The team allows 3.7 fewer points with Durant in the lineup.
Still, at both ends of the floor Durant remains a work in progress. He gets pushed out of position too easily when posting up, can lack a killer instinct and commits far too many turnovers (4.0 per game at week's end, second only to Warriors guard Monta Ellis). Bring up these issues with Thunder personnel, and inevitably they will remind you that Durant is only 21. And indeed this fact can be easy to forget when watching him on the court or in interviews, when he comes across as savvy and humble: I can't thank my teammates enough for getting me easy shots.... I think Thabo is one of the top three defenders in the game.... The key to that win was Jeff Green because he causes so many matchup problems.
Of course, this only serves to make Durant's relative immaturity off the court all the more startling, and at times endearing. Here is a young man who, when he needs to decompress at home, turns off all the lights and watches children's movies. ("One time I had a terrible game, and I came home and watched Dennis the Menace," he says. "I felt really good after that, ready to get back to the gym.") A young man who still calls Wanda "Mommy" (that's her photo on his Twitter page, kissing him on the cheek), who loves a Jenga smackdown and whose idea of a good time is heading to the mall with similarly minded teammates to check out girls and eat at the Cheesecake Factory (sample tweet from an outing last week, posted by Green: "I got these ribs and carrots and baked potato and a Arnold Palmer...can u say BOMB.COM").