Showing he's more than a scoring machine, Kevin Durant has the young Thunder rolling toward the playoffs
On most mornings Kevin Durant, the best NBA player most people never get to see, drives his extralong conversion van 10 minutes from his house in the suburbs of Oklahoma City to the Thunder's practice facility, which if not technically in the middle of nowhere is at least on its outskirts. He passes sagging power lines and idle oil derricks and vast fields of brittle yellow grass pocked with snow before turning onto a two-lane road and, just past the John Deere factory, pulling into the parking lot of the practice center, a converted roller rink. Unfolding his 6'9" frame from the van, Durant ambles past the odd rabbit lounging in the shrubbery and enters the gym for another day of work, all the while engulfed by the scent of ... well, what is that exactly?
"Dog food," says Durant. "And it stinks, man; it really stinks." As it turns out, there is a hulking Purina plant just down the road, churning out untold tons of pet chow weekly, but Durant takes the, um, ambience in stride, just as he does many other not-so-glamorous elements of playing in the smallest market in the NBA. These include the weather (cold), the nightlife (hello, Denny's!) and the TV exposure (two national appearances this season, or 27 fewer than the Cavaliers), all of which are supposed to be of great importance to NBA players, who are commonly envisioned as a flock of 7-foot homing pigeons all hatched in the same sweaty South Beach nightclub. But Durant claims not to mind. He says that he "loves it here," and once you spend some time around him, it becomes clear that he is not only sincere but also talking as much about the franchise as the city itself.
This is not to say that the jokes don't get old. Like last week, when Durant and a few teammates were at a mall in Dallas and a man walked up to the group, which was outfitted in matching gray Thunder sweat suits, and said, "Oklahoma City—is that a semipro team?" and then started giggling. Last year, when the Thunder began a Nets-like 3--29, such a crack would have at least made sense. This year, however, it merely betrayed ignorance, for the Thunder are not only respectable but also on the verge of being downright good. Despite a nine-man rotation that could be described as the March Madness Traveling All-Stars (average age 23) Oklahoma City finished the week with a 22--18 record, just behind eighth-place Houston in the ultracompetitive Western Conference.
This has led to a natural curiosity about the team and especially the 21-year-old Durant, who heretofore was known primarily for two things: being the national college player of the year as a freshman (at Texas) and scoring a ton of points for a bad NBA team (first the Sonics and then, after the team moved in 2008, the Thunder). The latter leads to pejorative labels, whether deserved or not: Gunner, Guy Who Gets His, Volume Shooter. These days, however, Durant is scoring a ton of points for a winning team, and that is regarded as a different thing entirely. Players who do that are tagged All-Star and Franchise Player and have names like Kobe and Carmelo and D-Wade and Dirk.
While Durant has not reached their level just yet, there are nights when he comes pretty damn close. Take last week against San Antonio, one of the better defensive teams in the league. The Spurs' game plan, in the words of one assistant, was to "double-team the s--- out of Durant." San Antonio also fronted him and jumped screens and sent help defenders from the baseline rather than the top of the key, a flurry of activity generally reserved for the Kobes of the world. This came on the heels of a game, earlier in the week, when the Knicks broke out that old high school staple, the box-and-one, to defend Durant. ("Never seen that in this league," he says, shaking his head.)
The Spurs' scheme worked for about three quarters. Durant shot mainly contested jumpers, many of which rimmed out in agonizing fashion, and at one point was 7 for 19 from the field. A year ago—even two months ago, he says—he would have stopped shooting. "But I learned that's not the remedy," Durant says. "I knew I had to be aggressive for us to win." So he kept launching jumpers, focusing on releasing the ball before the defense closed, and eventually he began sinking them, finishing with 35 points on 14-for-31 shooting in a tough overtime loss. To give you an idea of how uncommonly common this output was for Durant, consider that through Sunday he had more games of 30 points this season (22) than not (18), while averaging 29.1 (third in the league). His consistency has not gone unnoticed. "The most difficult thing to do in this league is to carry a team every night, especially a team that is winning," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "You can count the guys who can do that on one hand. Durant is right below those guys right now, and the only reason is because he's young."
If this sounds like the type of player you might want to construct a franchise around, well, you are not alone.
Meet Sam Presti, the Thunder general manager. At 32, his résumé includes: four-year career as a scrappy guard at Emerson College (he once took six charges in one game), Rhodes scholar nominee, seven years working his way up the Spurs' organization to assistant G.M. and now three at the helm of the Oklahoma City franchise, where he remains the youngest G.M. in the league by a wide margin. From an office next to the practice court—where he sits hunched over a laptop surrounded by an iPod dock, a whiteboard with a color-coded list of every player in the league and a stack of books that includes biographies of Harry Truman and Thelonious Monk—Presti has modeled the Thunder after his old employer. San Antonio's strategy over the last decade-plus, greatly simplified, was to assemble complementary pieces around one lynchpin player (Tim Duncan) and a couple of very good ones (most recently Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker), then win with defense, discipline and smarts.
Since taking over, Presti has drafted a core of young talent—in addition to Durant, there is point guard Russell Westbrook, forward Jeff Green and shooting guard James Harden—and surrounded it with high-character, high-energy specialists such as forward Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha, a versatile 6'7" guard he pried away from the Bulls last season who is being mentioned as a potential Defensive Player of the Year. From the top down Presti stresses a culture of humility and hard work and incremental gains, and he likes to use words like sustainability. The franchise ethos, which the players buy into, is apparent at the practice facility, where the posters are not of players but of ideals: the arm of one Thunder player reaching down to help up a fallen teammate, a player's hands grasping his shorts from exhaustion.
The piece that holds it all together is Durant, who is Presti's Tim Duncan. And while Durant is most often compared with Tracy McGrady in terms of size and ability to handle the ball, he may have more in common with the Spurs center. Both are team players, both shy away from the spotlight and both are quietly confident. "You never see Durant pumping his chest, for the most part, or pointing at people, or saying, 'Look at me, look at what I just did,'" says Popovich. "He goes and dunks or knocks down the jumper like, That's what I'm supposed to do, I've done it before and I'm going to keep doing it. That's what Duncan does. And in that sense they're very, very similar."
Durant grew up in Suitland, Md., a half hour outside Washington, D.C., with his mother, Wanda, a postal worker, and his father, Wayne, a police officer. When he was 10, Kevin began working out with a rec-center coach, a tough-love type named Taras Brown, whom everybody called Stink. He would run Durant through all manner of drills, including defensive slides and grueling hill sprints, all of which—from the perspective of a 10-year-old—really sucked. But one in particular stood out in that regard: let's call it The Frozen Shot of Death. Brown would order the spindly Durant to lie on his back with a pillow under his head and hold up a medicine ball as if about to shoot it, elbow cocked. "I was supposed to hold it there for an hour," remembers Durant. "An hour!" The first thing to go would be his right shoulder, which graduated from searing pain into a throbbing if welcome numbness. Helping support the ball with his left hand didn't help, "because then that one started to hurt too." It was the only one of Brown's drills that Durant ever walked out on in their six fun-free years together. Even so, two hours after leaving, Durant returned, wordlessly, and picked that ball back up. "I was never sure what that drill was for," says Durant, "but I know it's those types of drills that made me who I am today."
Indeed, 10 years later Durant still eagerly wants to please, a trait not commonly found in 29-point-a-game scorers. "You can tell him, 'O.K., Kevin, we're going to do 20 push-ups between shots,'" says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "And he does it! He does it!" Assistant coach Ron Adams describes how Durant is constantly asking for feedback, even during games. And Idan Ravin, a trainer who works with many NBA players, says he purposely set his first workout with Durant at an awkward time and place just to see how Durant would respond. He got there 20 minutes before Ravin. "It's important to make a good first impression," says Durant.
This is not, as Brooks stresses, "just putting on a show," either. Durant takes the first bus to the arena on game days. He arrives an hour early for practices and stays two hours after. When he was in high school, he spent so much time carrying around a basketball that his friends used to tease him because his T-shirts—always white, always baggy—had a mosaic of ball prints on them. "I've been around the league a long time and seen a lot of guys," says Thunder reserve guard Kevin Ollie, who, in fact, has played on 13 teams. "And he's the most prepared guy I've seen."
Of course, there are plenty of NBA players who work hard, but few if any have the combination of Durant's talents and his unique physique. From his armpit to the tip of his middle finger, Durant's arms are 36 inches long. This may not sound that impressive until you consider that the average broomstick is 38 inches.
Durant's reach is unusual even among outsized professional athletes, and it can make him an awkward sight. Whereas most players raise the ball from their thigh on a free throw, Durant begins below his knees. When he dribbles, he appears to be reaching down to pet a small dog, so low is the ball, yet he is able to do so without bending much at the waist or crouching. But while his wingspan has hindered his ability to find suit jackets and gain strength—even though he lifts daily, he says "for all those who want to know, I still can't bench 185 pounds"—it provides a wonderful array of uses on a basketball court.
Most of them, however, have been employed on the offensive end as Durant's abilities as a scorer continue to evolve. Compared with 2008--09, according to detailed statistics from HoopData.com, he's finishing a higher percentage of shots at the rim (74.0% to 68.0%), completing more and-ones (3.3% to 2.8%) and getting fewer shots blocked (4.2% to 4.8%), all of which are a testament to his improved ability to attack the basket. He's also shooting a much higher percentage on midrange jumpers—46.3% to 35.0%—attributable to practice and Brooks's offense, which relies heavily on pin downs and curls to free Durant for free-throw-line jumpers. ("My sweet spot," he says.) And, counterintuitively, he is scoring on fewer assisted baskets than last season, a difference Brooks attributes to Durant's getting out more in transition, where he can employ the Eurostep (a fake-one-way-go-the-other, open-court move that's all the rage on the Continent), which he picked up in the off-season. (Interestingly, he modeled it not on an actual European, but on Sacramento rookie Tyreke Evans.) Watch Durant and you'll notice that he's added other, veteran ploys, such as bringing the ball up through a defender's arm to draw a shooting foul, √† la Duncan and Reggie Miller, and emphasizing contact to get to the line. (After one successful such instance against Dallas last week, Mavs guard Jason Terry turned to the bench and sarcastically announced, "Congratulations, meet Michael Jordan!")
Defense, however, has been another matter. Durant admits that when he got out of position in the past, it was because "either I didn't know the schemes or was being lazy." This season, however, he came to camp determined, as he says, "to let my defense lead to my offense." The addition to the coaching staff of Adams, a defensive specialist, midway through last season helped in this respect, though not necessarily for the reason one might think. "Ron doesn't teach me schemes or how to guard people," says Durant. "He just gets on me and makes me feel bad."
Whatever the motivation, Durant has gone from being a bad defender to an above-average one. He leads the team in steals, bites on fewer pump-fakes (and when he does, he at least tries to recover) and is getting better on rotations and helpside D. It shows in the numbers. Whereas last season Oklahoma City was a drastically worse defensive team when Durant was in the game—the Thunder allowed 8.2 points more per 100 possessions when he was on the floor versus off—this season he is having the opposite effect: The team allows 3.7 fewer points with Durant in the lineup.
Still, at both ends of the floor Durant remains a work in progress. He gets pushed out of position too easily when posting up, can lack a killer instinct and commits far too many turnovers (4.0 per game at week's end, second only to Warriors guard Monta Ellis). Bring up these issues with Thunder personnel, and inevitably they will remind you that Durant is only 21. And indeed this fact can be easy to forget when watching him on the court or in interviews, when he comes across as savvy and humble: I can't thank my teammates enough for getting me easy shots.... I think Thabo is one of the top three defenders in the game.... The key to that win was Jeff Green because he causes so many matchup problems.
Of course, this only serves to make Durant's relative immaturity off the court all the more startling, and at times endearing. Here is a young man who, when he needs to decompress at home, turns off all the lights and watches children's movies. ("One time I had a terrible game, and I came home and watched Dennis the Menace," he says. "I felt really good after that, ready to get back to the gym.") A young man who still calls Wanda "Mommy" (that's her photo on his Twitter page, kissing him on the cheek), who loves a Jenga smackdown and whose idea of a good time is heading to the mall with similarly minded teammates to check out girls and eat at the Cheesecake Factory (sample tweet from an outing last week, posted by Green: "I got these ribs and carrots and baked potato and a Arnold Palmer...can u say BOMB.COM").
"There's nothing fake about Kevin; he is who he is," says Collison, a relatively grizzled veteran at 29. "It's kind of refreshing, someone with that much talent and ability, a guy who's been on the cover of magazines since he was 18, but all he wants to do is play basketball and hang out. He's not trying to rule the world or become a global marketing icon—he just wants to play ball."
What an unusual concept: just wanting to play ball. It might even explain why a talented young man would enjoy living in a city where the fans are smitten with their pro hoops team, there are few distractions and everyone associated with the team, from the G.M. to the coach to the players, can't wait to get inside the practice facility every morning.
And not just because they want to escape the smell of dog food.
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The Thunder's rotation (average age 23) could be described as the March Madness Traveling All-Stars.
"[Durant's] not trying to rule the world or become a global icon," says Collison. "He just wants to play ball."
Photograph by GREG NELSON
TALKING POINTS Durant had scored 30 or more in 12 of his last 14 games through Sunday, forcing opponents to alter defensive tactics.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
BETTER DAYS Through its first 40 games Oklahoma City already had 22 victories—just one short of the team's total in 2008--09.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
INSIDE MAN In addition to improving his D, Durant is taking the ball to the hole more aggressively.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
LAUGHING ALL THE WAY Westbrook (left) and Durant, the NBA's third-highest scoring duo, have bought into G.M. Presti's team ideals.