I asked Thunder general manager Sam Presti just a few days ago what the USA Basketball mini-camp did for Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook. Presti, always modest, surprisingly gushed about how he thought the few days his players spent in Las Vegas really went a long way to build their reputations in the minds of scouts, coaches and GMs throughout the league.
Presti said nationally people really liked what they saw out of Oklahoma City’s big three. They were impressed with their practice habits and their work ethic. They liked that they played the game the right way and excelled against the best young competition in the NBA.
It was the first time opposing execs got to see Durant, Green and Westbrook up close for an extended behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making them special players. The first time outsiders got to see their passion for the game and their willingness to put the necessary time into becoming the best players they can be.
Then along came this observation from longtime NBA writer Sam Smith:
“It’s being whispered now among NBA types because, I believe, under a secret NBA/ESPN provision you are not permitted to say aloud anything that might be interpreted to suggest LeBron James isn’t the best thing to ever happen in anyone’s life. But sitting in the stands in Las Vegas at the USA Basketball mini-camp and hearing NBA coaches and general managers, the gasps have been for Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant. I’ve now heard more than one say that Durant could be a better player than James given Durant’s combination of amazing size at about 6-10 and pure shooting stroke. And he’s still 20. The feeling is Durant is on the brink of being a 30 per game scorer. Plus, Durant is a serious worker…”
I tweeted a link to this blurb on my Twitter account, and Durant responded by saying, “Man Y people keep sayin that…I’m not nowhere near as good as LeBron man.”
I chalk up Durant’s response as yet another sign of his humbleness and respect for the league and one of the game’s best. Also, I think Durant attacks his forthcoming ascent in a very practical manner. He realizes he has the gifts to develop into one of the most unique players the league has ever seen. But he’s more focused on the work it will take to earn having his name mentioned in the same breath of LeBron rather than simply accepting the acclaim with which media and fans already want to anoint upon him.
(As an aside, several times throughout the season I’d joke with Durant about how his shooting stroke is effortless. He never seemed to like my opinion, and each time I voiced it he agitatedly insisted that his shot isn’t effortless. While I was referring to the sheer sight and mechanics of it, he made sure I knew that he’s given a great deal of effort, through time and reps, to get his form and results to the point they are today. It’s one small example of Durant’s mentality. How he works hard to get to where he wants to be and will never let what people think or say deter him from putting in the time it takes for him to ultimately reach his potential.)
But at the same time, praise like the blurb from Smith falls in line with what we’re starting to hear more and more about Durant’s potential. He’s obviously nowhere near a finished product. But the reason why he’s so celebrated is because he isn’t anywhere close to reaching his potential. As a rail thin 20-year-old, Durant posted averages of 25.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 steals. He shot 47.6 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Durant will never have the brawn, speed, athleticism and court vision of LeBron James. But only for comparisons sake, here’s what James averaged as a 20-year-old second-year player: 27.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.2 apg, 2.2 spg, 47.2 FG%, 35.1 3PT %.
They’re different players with totally different styles. But Durant doesn’t appear to be far behind James’ pace.