Devin (as in heaven) Durrant speaks several "languages." Around the house, he and his wife, Julie, often speak Spanish, in which they are both fluent. "¬°Oye, flaco!" Julie will greet him. Flaco means skinny one, and Durrant, at 6'7" and 192 pounds, qualifies.
Around the Brigham Young campus, where he's known as a man of unusual commitment in a veritable fortress of religious commitment, Durrant speaks the language of faith and devotion—but he does so quietly and only when asked.
And around the basket, where Durrant, a 23-year-old senior forward, is best known, he speaks the language of the playground: a head fake here, a twist of the body there, a lean-in jumper everywhere. He has used these moves to score enough field goals—and draw enough fouls—to lead the nation in scoring most of the season. His 28.5-point average through last Sunday had him less than a point a game behind Akron's Joe Jakubick.
Durrant has been numbingly consistent. Last season he averaged 22.8 points, never getting fewer than 16 points or more than 31 in a game. This year he'd scored more than 25 points in 17 of BYU's 23 games through last weekend; in one stretch he went for 36, 35, 34, 38, 33 and 36. An eight-point performance in last Saturday's 68-64 win over Notre Dame, which raised BYU's record to 16-7, was more a nullity than anything else. Triple-teamed much of the game, Durrant took only six shots and made four. His only certifiably off game came on Feb. 11 when Georgetown held him to 13 points in a 67-51 loss. But that doesn't mean Durrant chokes in the big ones—he scored 33 points at Kentucky on Dec. 17 and 36 at UCLA 11 days later.
Durrant's repertoire includes neither dazzling dunks nor long-range bombs. He's that rarest of prolific scorers, a player who's calculating rather than spectacular, analytical rather than pyrotechnical. That's why he's shooting 58.7% from the floor. But that's not to poor-mouth his free-lancing abilities. He plays as though he learned his stuff on the mostly black playgrounds of Louisville and honed it in the mostly white gymnasiums of Utah. Which is exactly what he did.
But for all his scoring, people are more likely to talk about the outstanding qualities of the off-the-court Durrant than of the basketball-playing one. After he scored 31 points last Thursday to lead BYU to a 94-92 overtime defeat of San Diego State last Thursday, Aztec coach Smokey Gaines said, "He's class personified." Adds BYU coach Ladell Anderson, "Our best player is also our best kid."
Durrant, who spent two years between his sophomore (1979-80) and junior seasons ('82-83) on a Mormon mission in Madrid, isn't the only BYU basketball player to have interrupted his athletic career for the church—all devout young Mormons are expected to spend a year or two doing missionary work—but he's certainly the best. He started every game as a freshman and a sophomore, but off he went to Spain in April 1980, carrying with him the decidedly mixed blessings of Frank Arnold, then the Cougars' coach. Just before Durrant left he met a coed named Julie Mink, who'd just returned from six months studying in Madrid. They got married 10 months ago.
"Sometimes we speak Spanish so people can't understand what we're saying, like if we're in a movie line or something," says Julie, now a Spanish teacher at Orem (Utah) High. "But most of the time we do it because it adds an extra dimension to our relationship. It's a much more romantic language than English, and it's just a lot of fun."
Fun and romance were not what Durrant found in Madrid. Six days a week, 13 hours a day, he and a companion walked the streets, knocking on doors to spread the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Durrant estimates he got into only one of every 50 homes he called at. During his spare time Durrant often jogged while dribbling a basketball, and on occasion he'd do some dunking at a deserted playground for conditioning. But never did he participate in so much as a pickup game or even attempt a jump shot. Nor did he think much about the game. One afternoon in March 1981, a BYU coed informed him that BYU had made the finals of the NCAA Eastern Regional. "Really?" said Durrant. He tuned in to Armed Forces Radio and listened as the Danny Ainge-led Cougars succumbed to Ralph Sampson and Virginia. For two years that was his only contact with the team he'd left behind. "To me it was a matter of principle," says Durrant. "I wanted to show people that you could serve your church without sacrificing everything else."
He finished his mission in April 1982 and flew home on a Saturday. The following Monday he went to a church gym in Salt Lake City to see how much he'd lost. He dribbled close to the basket and carefully, very carefully, took his first jump shot in two years. It banked in. It took him about six months to get his full game back, but the player whose skills were supposed to have atrophied went on to lead the WAC in scoring in 1982-83 and share conference player of the year honors with San Diego State's Michael Cage and Utah's Pace Mannion.
"It's hard to explain how perfect the time I spent in Spain was for me," says Durrant. "It seems like everything in my life has been that way, things just falling into place. It would be hard for me not to have faith. I mean, why was my family sent to Kentucky, of all places, when I was in the seventh grade?"
Indeed, it was to Louisville, the basketball heartland of America, that Devin's father, George, was called in 1972 to serve as a mission president. For the next three years Devin haunted the local playgrounds. The Durrants went back to Utah after Devin's ninth-grade year, but three years later he made his first triumphant return to Kentucky as a member of the U.S. high school all-star team and was the MVP in a game against the Kentucky-Indiana all-stars.
There are reasons why Durrant, who has good but unspectacular leaping ability and is, of course, un flaco, is so effective one-on-one. First, he has an uncanny ability to read and react to defenses. Second, he has quick feet and an extraordinarily quick release. Thus he rarely has his shots blocked. Third, he knows his limitations—he's a good shooter only from 18 feet in—and carefully positions himself to receive the ball in the right spots. "He's probably the smartest guy without the ball to come along in 10 years," says Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting, who rates Durrant as the best small forward in this year's draft. Durrant also understands his importance to the BYU offense—he gets down-court quickly and doesn't bother much with defensive rebounding. He is averaging only 5.1 boards per game. Finally, Durrant has a knack, as Anderson puts it, "of getting his arms in the way." He ducks in, leans in and on many of his shots even clears out the defense with his left arm, yet Durrant usually gets the foul called his way. At week's end he'd gone to the line 9.9 times a game and was shooting 80.7%. "We can't believe he gets away with it like he does," says teammate Scott Sinek. The other Cougars kid Durrant about it, just as they kid him about his less-than-pugnacious defense—he's known as D around campus and No D to his teammates—and his peculiar diet of various protein and other nutritional supplements. "What would he weigh without that stuff," wonders Applegate. "One-thirty?"
Shortcomings on defense, rebounding and size have all been mentioned as possible detriments to Durrant's succeeding in the pros, but most NBA people look beyond such stuff. "When a guy can score, it makes up for a multitude of sins," says Frank Layden, coach and general manager of the Utah Jazz. And Durrant is a man who doesn't exactly have a multitude of sins to make up for.