On Tuesday, Thunder forward Kevin Durant was named the 2013-14 MVP after leading the NBA in scoring for the fourth time in five years and becoming the fourth player to average at least 32 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a season. Here, Oklahoma City's Nick Collison, a 33-year-old backup power forward and the only man to have played alongside Durant, 25, his entire seven-year career, reflects on his teammate's growth from reserved 19-year-old rookie with the 20-62 Seattle SuperSonics in 2007-08 to Thunder leader and first-time MVP this season.
When I first met Kevin Durant, during the team's last year in Seattle, he was very shy and quiet. "A real nice kid" is how I'd describe him. And he was very open. Basketball-wise, he would do anything anyone wanted him to do.
That first year was difficult, though, between the changes on our team [which traded Ray Allen and lost fellow star Rashard Lewis in a sign-and-trade deal after drafting Durant] and Kevin's adjustment to the NBA. As a perimeter player, he struggled playing against really quick guys who would get underneath him as a ball handler. Physically, he was thin, and the grind of the 82-game season wore on him.
Still, what stuck out to me was that he just really wanted to be a basketball player. Some guys come into the league and have these ideas about what they want to do off the court -- to be businessmen and all that. Kevin was all about basketball. He was most comfortable in the gym. He just loved to play ball.
On the court, I hadn't seen anyone with his size who had his ability. I don't think there's ever been anyone in the league like him. To be a true perimeter player as a 7-footer, like he is? Sure, there are a lot of big guys who can do more than traditional 7-footers, but the phrase 'He can handle it like a guard" is overused. Kevin is different; he really is a perimeter player. He comes off pin-down screens, he handles the ball on pick-and-rolls.
Early in his career, he was just trying to establish himself and find out who he could be as a player. A lot of us do that. Now, however, it's about the team. His goals have changed. He's focused on winning a championship. He's naturally introverted, but as he's gotten older, it's become more important for him to think, How can I help other guys?
Kevin is not in a different category than anyone else, either. He allows guys to make suggestions. If I feel like he's floating a bit in a game or down a bit about a bad start, I can get in his ear and say, "You gotta get in a stance," or "You gotta pick us up." And he'll listen and be open-minded, rather than reacting with the attitude that I'm the MVP, and you're a role player.
At heart, he's a worker. That's who he is. Brian Keefe, one of our assistant coaches, has worked with Kevin since Day One. And they work together all the time. After practice, before practice. Kevin understands that working on his game is what has made him successful and he doesn't get away from that, even after emerging as an elite player. He wasn't born with the ability to cross over and step back at that size, you know. That's not natural.
Offensively, it's hard not to be in awe of him sometimes. I don't know how you try to defend him if he's shooting well. He's so good at putting it on the floor. I've guarded him in pickup games and you essentially have to guard against everything. No one else in the league is like that.
On defense, he'll make plays that shock you. He's in places perimeter defenders are supposed to be, but the amount of ground he can cover at his size is amazing. A lot of times a wing player rotates down because a big man had to help, but with him it's a 7-footer getting in the mix. And people don't talk about this, but when he's really engaged mentally, he's probably our best rebounder.
Just having him on the court makes us all better. Every defense changes dramatically when he's in there. He has the man guarding him, someone helping off some sort of screening action and three other guys basically staring at him, waiting to make a move. It gets all of us layups and open shots. It allows us to be good.
Look at my career. I'm viewed as a guy who does the little things that help a team win. I have a niche, even a little bit of a cult following. But if I were on a losing team, no one would talk about that. And the reason for that is Kevin, and Russell Westbrook. Their success raises all of us.
We don't talk about Kevin's place in history, but I think about that a lot. I remember growing up watching Michael Jordan and all those guys who played with him. When you play with a guy like that, you play on a special team. It's cool to think that someday people might remember me the same way they do [former Bulls role players] Cliff Levingston or Luc Longley. And it's cool to think that I'll be able to say that not only did I play with Kevin but that I also liked the guy.
Thirty years from now, what I'll remember most about Kevin is how he treated people. Because his world is really crazy. He can't go anywhere without people coming up to him. Everybody wants something. It would almost be understandable for him to not have a good feel for how to deal with people. But he's managed to stay true to who he was on that first day I met him seven years ago. He's still respectful. What you see is who he is. Everybody who works for the Thunder, he works with them, they don't work for him. We're all peers.
I've got a ton of respect for Kevin Durant. It's really been an honor to play with him.
Collison, the 12th pick in the 2003 draft, has career averages of 6.5 points and 5.6 rebounds. He's played his entire 10-year career with the Thunder franchise. Follow him on Twitter @nickcollison4.