OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook quickly went from being rookies to All-Stars, and now they're practically veterans on the increasingly youthful Oklahoma City Thunder.
And they are just 23.
Facing a budget crunch as NBA blocks leader Serge Ibaka and Sixth Man of the Year James Harden became eligible for contract extensions, the Thunder allowed veterans Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey to walk away during free agency this summer. That leaves forward Nick Collison as the team's only thirtysomething and one of just three players who has reached their 26th birthday.
Youth has never been an excuse for the Thunder, who went from league laughingstock to Western Conference champion in the four years they've played in Oklahoma City. General manager Sam Presti said Wednesday that he's confident Durant and Westbrook will be able to adjust their leadership skills now that there are fewer veterans around.
"They're continually evolving," Presti said. "When you take a look at what it is that they have established, those guys have been through a lot of things. I put Nick Collison in that group, too. I talk a lot about the internal standards that we have, that we work by on a day-to-day basis, and those three guys are part of the first team that ever wore the uniform and ever wore the logo.
"They have a lot of ownership over the culture that's been established because of who they are and how they approach their jobs."
They'll have to do it with a supporting cast that is younger, and less proven, than a season ago. During the run to the NBA Finals, Fisher was 37, Mohammed was 34 and Ivey 30. Fisher had won five NBA championships and Mohammed had won one.
The Thunder's biggest offseason acquisition was 25-year-old Hasheem Thabeet. Second-year players DeAndre Liggins, Daniel Orton and Andy Rautins will join first-round draft pick Perry Jones III and undrafted rookie Hollis Thompson as newcomers when training camp opens Tuesday.
"We lost three veterans in Nazr, Royal and Fish and we picked up a couple young guys. So, it's going to be interesting in training camp because guys are really going to be battling for minutes," said starting center Kendrick Perkins, the team's third-oldest player at 27. "We've got a lot of talent and rookies who are coming in that's ready to play right now."
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