Wednesday January 16th, 2008

The weight and strength will come. The talent and intuition are already there. So what is the biggest modification Kevin Durant is undergoing in his rookie year?

In one year he has leapt from being a freshman at Texas to becoming one of those rare pros who is asked to carry the NBA.

"The guys who are playing 35 minutes that the people are paying money to come see -- those guys earn every penny that they get,'' said Seattle SuperSonics coach P.J. Carlesimo, who has been given the job of preparing Durant for that role.

"I talked to Kevin and Jeff about that the last time we were in New York,'' Carlesimo said in reference to rookie Jeff Green, who joined Durant in Seattle as the No. 5 pick in the draft. "I said, 'When you guys go to a concert, you want to hear something good. You don't know that they drove down from Providence last night three hours and they got in late. You pay your money and you want to hear them sing and you want them to be good. And you want the lead guy to be really good.'

"Well, that's what Kevin is'' -- the lead guy -- "and that's a hard thing to do in this league. Those guys earn their money. I'm not saying the other guys don't, but when your complementing or your playing 'x' amount of minutes or you're coaching, you're stealing money, it's great. But when you're playing 35 or 40, and you're the guy they're coming to see and you've got to perform every night, people don't want to hear whatever [excuses] -- they just want to see you play.''

That's why the early signs are so promising for the 19-year-old Durant, who despite numerous excuses has yet to complain. He inherited no elder scorer to help distract the defenses after Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis departed Seattle over the summer. The Sonics, 9-28 through Tuesday, are third worst in the league standings and 26th in attendance (13,603) amid questions of whether they will be moving to Oklahoma City in a year or two. Then there is the intensive travel and schedule of the NBA, which is to say that with three months still to come, Durant already is on the verge of surpassing the 1,255 minutes he played last year at Texas. In some ways he could not have entered a harsher environment, and yet he still looks as if he loves to play the games.

Though Durant is shooting only 39.9 percent from the field and committing 2.92 turnovers a game, he nonetheless makes the game look easy as a 6-foot-9 guard with the wingspan of a 7-footer, a guy who moves fluidly and will create more plays for himself and his teammates as he and they improve over the next couple of years. It's no surprise that he's been held to single-digit scoring in three games, but those cold nights have been more than offset by a trio of 30-point performances. He's leading rookies in scoring (19.8) while drawing the opponent's toughest defender.

"I was telling somebody he reminds me of a Tracy McGrady being able to handle the ball and do all kinds of things,'' Dallas forward Josh Howard, an All-Star last season, said after holding Durant to 15 points (4-of-13 shooting) in the Mavericks' 90-70 victory last Friday in Seattle. "It was a challenge. I didn't want to be showed up by a rookie, so I went out and played D.''

Durant still finds himself looking up to his opponents -- he admitted to stargazing at Dirk Nowitzki during pregame warmups -- but he also took Carlesimo's comments to heart. He acknowledges a sense of duty to become an elite player.

"Early on I was thinking about that a lot,'' he said of the fans' expectations. "But as a player, I don't think you should be thinking about people outside the locker room. I know the fans pay a lot of money to come and see you perform, but you've just got to listen to everybody in the locker room, got to play for everybody in the locker room and just play within the team concept. I put my teammates first and then the fans second.''

Which, of course, is the right order: The fans want to see the stars elevating their teams. But I also remember hearing Michael Jordan and Larry Bird use their fans as motivation on those nights when they were tired. They would think about the fans in the audience who were seeing them play for the first time, and Bird or Jordan wouldn't want to send them home with a disappointing impression.

Durant admits to the same incentive. "That gives me a little bit of an extra push,'' he said. But he is wary of getting carried away by his celebrity as well as by the depth of analysis and information he is asked to digest before each game.

"I just try to clear my mind before the game, before I step out on the court,'' he said. "Try to win the game and play hard. Just keep it like that. Don't have too many things racing through your head at one time, because if you think like that, it can go bad for you. Just have confidence in yourself on the floor, don't act too cocky, but just have confidence.''

In this new environment, it isn't always easy to trust oneself. "It can be,'' he agreed. "When you're not shooting well and you maybe miss four or five in a row and the next shot is yours and you're open to take it, you kind of hesitate a little bit -- 'I might miss,' or 'This may not be good for the team.' But as a player, that's something you can't think about. You've just got to trust in yourself and your teammates and things will be all right.''

As much as Carlesimo (a former San Antonio assistant coach) and general manager Sam Presti (a former San Antonio assistant GM) have been informed by the example of the Spurs and Tim Duncan, the Sonics' coach acknowledges that there aren't a lot of similarities between Durant and Duncan, who as an incoming college senior was older and stronger than Durant and had the benefit of joining a contender led by David Robinson.

"We just are trying to ingrain the defensive habits, the work-hard habits, the understanding that good people and good teammates share and all of those clichés are what it takes to win in this league,'' Carlesimo said. "Just get his habits right now, and we'll continue to add pieces.''

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