Young scoring sensation Kevin Durant is learning how to steer the Oklahoma City Thunder to a winning record
Most NBA players grind through two practices a day at the beginning of training camp, each of which can last up to two-and-a-half hours. After five hours in the gym, the last thing you'd expect from a franchise player is to want to spend even more time with his teammates. Yet on the second day of training camp, Kevin Durant planned on doing just that. After an interview, the Oklahoma City Thunder guard was headed off to rookie James Harden's house to play video games.
"We're like a family — we do everything together," Durant says of the Thunder. "James can just show up at my house and I won't mind. I can show up at his house and he won't mind. That's the type of relationship we have."
For Durant, becoming buddies with his side-kicks is also a way to make the Thunder a better team. "Once you become best friends off the court, it's easier for you to get to know each other [on the court]," Durant says. "What spot [we] like on the floor, where we like the ball. That's going to help us in the long run."
Durant is coming off a season in which he averaged 25.3 points per game, but his team went 23–59. Entering his third NBA season, the 21-year-old has become very comfortable with the ball in his hands. Now he is learning how to be a leader and a winner.
It's no secret that Durant is one of the NBA's brightest young stars. At 6' 9", he has an excellent handle on the ball driving to the basket. He can also pull up over defenders on the perimeter. Durant's long arms (he has a 7' 5" wingspan) make his shot nearly impossible to block. As a rookie in 2007–08, he averaged a solid 20.3 points per game, but his field goal percentage (.430) and three-point shooting percentage (.288) were poor. Thunder center Nick Collison says Durant's decision making improved greatly last season. "He took a lot of bad shots his first year, had a lot of turnovers," says Collison. "Now he can get to spaces on the floor better. He's also taking better shots. He knows when to make a play and when to pass."
In 2008–09 Durant raised his field goal (.476) and three-point shooting percentages (.422), and averaged five more points per game. His focus is now on defense. In workouts, he takes on three assistant coaches who pass the ball around the three-point line in a drill that sharpens his foot-work. He absorbs every little detail in an effort to keep getting better. "For some guys, basketball is not on their mind [again] until the next day of practice," says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "Kevin thinks about it and watches it, and it's in him. He's driven to excel in basketball."
Talking The Talk
Durant's skills were on display this summer when he participated in a Team USA camp that included top-notch players like Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Rudy Gay of the Memphis Grizzlies. Durant was the best player at the camp, and USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said he was a favorite to make the senior team roster for the 2010 FIBA world championships. Coach K wasn't the only person who noticed Durant's potential. This summer LeBron James told Durant that he could take his game to the next level by becoming a more vocal leader. Hearing that from the reigning NBA MVP had a big impact on Durant. "That was great advice coming from a great player, and that means a lot to me," says Durant. "That's what I'm trying to do, and I think my teammates are responding well."
Once a quiet guy, Durant now tries to speak out more. "There was a situation [in practice] where he was helping a couple of guys out on the defensive schemes because he knows it and he's been through it already," says Brooks. "He was giving them some pointers. That was a big step for him."
"He's more confident in his game now, so he can really concentrate on trying to win and me, bring other guys along to win," says Collison. "When you're a young player, you're trying to figure out what you can do. He's over that stage, and he's really going to be a winner."
On The Path To Greatness?
If you want to see all of Durant's hard work pay off, you might have to move to Oklahoma City. The Thunder has only three games on national TV this season. Raising the team's profile is something Durant knows how to fix. "We have to earn everything we get. By winning and by becoming a better team, all of that stuff will come," he says.
That stuff includes a playoff berth for the Thunder and a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team for Durant. With his talent, maturity, and work ethic, Durant has what it takes to be a very special player in the NBA. "Twenty-one years old, with his size and his skill set, he can be the best scorer in our league [one day]," says Collison.
Adds Brooks, "Most guys who stay healthy and stay competitive improve until they're 30 [years old]. The special ones can improve until they're 32. [Kevin] has 10 more years of getting better. That's frightening."
Frightening for the rest of the NBA, that is. Kevin Durant's teammates and coaches are thrilled to have this emerging superstar on their side.
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