Kevin Durant sat at his locker before a preseason game and blankly stared ahead as he pondered the position he finds himself in. The player many project as the NBA’s next big star enters his third season aware of how quickly acclaim can turn to condemnation. "They built me up. Now it’s time for them to break me down,” said Durant, the Thunder’s 21-year-old wunderkind. "So I’m getting ready for that.” But make no mistake, in no way is that a concession statement. Durant is fully prepared to meet the lofty expectations placed upon him as Oklahoma City opens the 2009-10 NBA season. The 6-foot-9 forward is supposed to shatter the feats of his sophomore season, when he ranked sixth in scoring with a 25.3-point average. In a poll of NBA general managers, nearly 26 percent picked Durant as the player most likely to have a breakout season. Coaches predict he’ll punch his ticket to this year’s All-Star Game. Some national media project him as a scoring leader, perhaps as soon as this season. USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo considers Durant an almost cinch for Team USA in the 2012 Olympic Games. "He’s a true sky-is-the-limit player,” said Memphis general manager Chris Wallace. "There are very few players you can say that about. "And you’re hard pressed to think of a young player in the league who has a better opportunity for stardom one day than Kevin Durant.” Durant significantly increased his scoring, rebounding, assists and steals averages last season. His shooting percentages from the field and the 3-point line also saw a major spike. But his team’s win total — the figures by which stars ultimately are judged — only improved from 20 victories to 23. "It’s all about winning basketball games,” said Grizzlies guard Allen Iverson. "That’s when you deserve to be put up there and mentioned with the elite players, once you established yourself as a winner in this league. "You can always be a great talent. But if you’re the tallest midget, you’re still short because you’re a midget.” Detractors point to his individual deficiencies as reason he isn’t ready to emerge among the game’s elite. Durant’s defense still is the weakest part of his game. He gets beat off the dribble in man-to-man defense and looks lost at times in team schemes. His play-making ability and decision-making both are glaring flaws as well. His 225 turnovers were the 11th most in the NBA last season, and he finished with a poor 0.91 assists-to-turnover ratio. "I’m not perfect,” Durant said. "I’m trying my best. If anybody knows me personally, they know that I try to do those things. I’m working my hardest. "I’m focusing more on defense than I ever have in my life coming into this year.” New Orleans coach Byron Scott called Durant a potential "defensive stopper” because of his length, athleticism and versatility. The Thunder, Scott said, doesn’t necessarily have to win 50 games before Durant emerges as a star. But Durant needs to show improvement on his weaknesses and lead Oklahoma City to a steady climb up the standings. "If he wants to be a real complete player or one that’s considered the best in this league, he has to do it on both ends of the floor,” said Scott, who predicted Durant will be an All-Star this season. Durant sounds willing and ready to take the next step. He speaks with a tone that comes off as sincere when discussing his commitment to leading the Thunder to better days. But it’s his work ethic, which generally can be seen in post-practice workouts, that rings loudest. "Hard work takes care of everything. That’s what I’ve always been taught,” Durant said. "If we continue to do that, then the sky’s the limit. Hopefully, that means a postseason berth. But I’m looking forward to whatever comes.” Both supporters and skeptics will be watching.
FOR DEFENSE TO BECOME A PRIORITY? Ready...Kevin Durant went from special as a 19-year-old rookie to spectacular as a 20-year-old sophomore. Now, as a 21-year-old entering his third NBA season, Durant has gotten wiser, stronger and more polished. In his second season, he improved on all of his weaknesses and could be ready to go a step further in Year Three. He’s shown a newfound commitment to defense and a do-whatever-it-takes attitude when it comes to avoiding a repeat of last season’s 23 wins. ...Or not: Durant’s playmaking has yet to develop to the point where he’s making others around him better. He averaged more turnovers than assists in both his first two seasons and nearly led the league in offensive fouls committed last season with 39. Until he proves otherwise, Durant’s biggest question mark will continue to be his defense. The Thunder gave up 8.2 points more per 40 minutes with Durant on the court in 2008-09. And before he becomes a superstar, Durant must consistently take over games down the stretch, and not just with his scoring.