LAS VEGAS — The exhaustion that led Kevin Durant to withdraw from the 2014 FIBA World Cup and the exasperation over ongoing foot injuries that spilled over into pointed comments to the media during All-Star Weekend both appear to be gone, as the 2014 MVP looked and sounded fully refreshed at USA Basketball minicamp practice Tuesday.
With LeBron James not yet in town—USAB officials expect him to arrive in time for Wednesday’s session—all eyes in Las Vegas turned to Durant, who is looking to move past the three surgeries he’s had on his right foot since October. The Thunder forward is now four months removed from the most recent one, a bone graft on his fifth metatarsal performed on March 31, and he’s moving freely.
Although USAB only went through light shooting drills and a few basic sets on Tuesday, Durant participated fully and showed no ill effects. He burst out of cuts, elevated quickly on his jumpers and moved freely through half-court plays while handling the ball. Durant will participate in practice on Wednesday but will not play in USAB’s public scrimmage on Thursday.
“I can go 100 percent,” Durant said during a post-practice interview. “I’m not going to play to 5-on-5 just yet. I’ll ease my way into that part. But everything else is no restrictions. … The competitive juice is boiling in my body and I’m ready to play.”
Durant, more than most, wears his emotions. “The Offseason: Kevin Durant”, a 2014 documentary co-produced by his agent, Roc Nation Sports’ Rich Kleiman, showed Durant agonizing over his decision to withdraw from USAB in favor of taking some time to rest. While trying to play through foot injuries and build momentum for a playoff run after playing just nine games over the first two months of the season, Durant scowled throughout most of his All-Star Weekend media availability in February, pushing back against reporters who questioned coach Scott Brooks’ job security and declaring that the players should vote on NBA awards because they are more qualified than the media. Sidelined soon after and then shut out of the playoffs, Durant kept a very low profile before reemerging at the Orlando Summer League and in Las Vegas for USAB camp.
“I played a lot of [NBA] 2K and I watched a lot of the playoffs,” Durant said. “I couldn’t shy away from the atmosphere. It was tough. I love to play the game. Not being able to play at the highest level, it’s tough. I’m glad I went through that journey. It made me a stronger man. … A couple days [after the surgery], I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do things on my own. That’s when it really hit me. I took for granted walking around, being able to take a shower by myself, driving, going to the bathroom. Not having your foot is tough.”
The pain subsided within one month after surgery, he said, and his easy smile and lighthearted conversational tone have returned since then, so much so that he laughed off and then punted a question about what irks him most about the NBA media. Durant’s trademark expressiveness on the court is also back; he pumped his fist after hitting shots during one shooting competition and clapped his hands loudly after misses.
Durant’s USAB commitments might have felt like a chore or an obligation last summer, following an MVP campaign in which he logged a league-high 3,122 minutes and lost to the Spurs in the 2014 Western Conference finals, but this year is a different story. Now, he gets a chance to test his foot, share the court with All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook and new Thunder assistant coach Monty Williams (a USAB assistant), and overcome any lingering guilt about his 2014 disappearing act and look ahead to the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
“You remember Christmas as a kid?” Durant asked rhetorically, in response to queries about how it felt to return to the court. “I feel like I’m back to myself. … I always appreciated the game, but you take it for granted just a little bit because it’s a routine. I missed the routine the most. Getting up, going to practice, getting my shots up before practice. I missed all of that. Hanging out with the guys in the locker room before the game. I missed that part the most.
“I know last year I left a sour taste in [USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo’s] and [coach Mike Krzyzewski’s] mouths. That’s something I didn’t want to do, but I had to make a decision for myself and I stood behind it. I’m here now trying to prove that I’m committed and ready to go. Hopefully we can put that in the past and I can be on the 2016 team.”
To no one’s great surprise, USAB isn’t holding a grudge against its leading scorer during the 2012 Olympics in London.
“He looks great,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m so excited for him and this upcoming season. Kevin has been committed to USA Basketball since he got out of Texas. He almost made our [2008 Olympic] team in Beijing. He was the MVP in Istanbul [at the 2010 World Championships] and he played great in the London. Injuries, contractual problems and personal things can enter into it [for our players]. It’s good to see him.”
Before Durant can turn his attention to helping USAB capture its third consecutive Olympic gold medal, he has plenty of other business on his plate. The Thunder, who missed the postseason for the first time since 2009 in Durant’s absence, are hoping to return to the ranks of championship contenders after firing Brooks, hiring University of Florida coach Billy Donovan, re-signing Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler, and drafting point guard Cameron Payne this summer. On paper, Oklahoma City belongs with, or just behind, Golden State and San Antonio in the Western Conference’s pecking order as long as Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka avoid the injury trouble that hounded them in 2014-15.
“I think we’re the best team in the NBA at this point,” Westbrook said Tuesday, in an example of Oklahoma City’s continued confidence in the face of adversity. “I think the group of guys we have, I think we have a good chance to win the NBA championship.”
There’s also the giant elephant in the room: Durant, who will earn $20.2 million in 2015-16 on the final year of his five-year rookie extension, has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time next July. The excitement surrounding a star of his caliber hitting the market is amplified by the NBA’s rising salary cap, which is set to rise from $70 million this year to $90+ million next year, opening numerous possibilities for Durant’s future.
His phone is bound to be ringing off the hook as his decision day draws closer, with pitches coming in regularly from fellow players and 30 fan bases alike. At least he’s prepared. As soon as his media availability ended, Durant stretched out his legs, pinned one phone to his left ear, and held a second phone in his right hand so that he could study its screen while he talked.
“I haven’t even thought about [free agency] recruiting,” Durant quipped. “I’m just trying to out there and not get cussed out by Russell Westbrook.”
Given that James is widely expected to re-sign in Cleveland on a series of short-term deals, a lion’s share of the ongoing rumor mill discussion is likely to fall to Durant. The Wizards, Nets, Knicks, Heat and Warriors have already popped up as possible Durant suitors. Durant said that the only people who would be privy to his free agency decision-making and licensed to speak publicly are himself, Kleiman, and Charlie Bell, his manager and best friend.
“I trust them with my life,” Durant said of Kleiman and Bell. “If you hear ‘sources’ or anything, don’t believe if it didn’t come from them. I tell them everything. We bounce ideas off of each other, we collaborate on a lot of different things. They give me advice. If you hear ‘sources’ or anything, it’s not true. … I am looking forward to [the scrutiny]. I can’t wait. Boo me. Call me any type of name in the book. Talk about my family. I’m ready for it.”
This decree was more evidence that his time off, however regrettable, has been put to good use. Not only does his energy appear to back, Durant sounds prepared for what could be the wildest 12 months of a career that’s already produced a Finals trip, multiple gold medals, and too many individual accolades to count. Even on the coaching subject, a touchy one for so long, Durant had his ducks in a row, stressing the importance of “building the chemistry” with Donovan and welcoming the leadership responsibility during the transition process after seven seasons under Brooks.
Injuries and rehabilitations cut at a professional athlete’s identity. It’s hard to be the “Easy Money Sniper,” as Durant styles himself, while balancing on one foot. It’s impossible to be the “Not Nice” super-competitor, as Nike sells Durant, while wearing street clothes. It’s difficult for Durant’s Thunder to maintain the “Team of the Future” tag when Stephen Curry snatched his MVP trophy and the young, exhilarating Warriors stole this year’s headlines.
In that vein, Durant’s one point of contention, on an otherwise easy Tuesday, was his observation that some observers have taken his absence for weakness.
“So many people have been trying me,” he said, before repeating the claim to a skeptical media contingent. “I walk down the street and so many people want to play me one-on-one now. I guess they haven’t seen me in a while. It gets me mad. I couldn’t do nothing about it.”
Soon he will be able to, again.