Results are in from the NBA's chief popularity contest. And the returns revealed Kevin Durant is growing into one of the game's giants. Durant, the fourth-year star for the Oklahoma City Thunder, has been selected by fans as a starter in the 2011 NBA All-Star Game. It will be Durant's second straight All-Star appearance but his first as a member of the starting five. Durant led all Western Conference forwards with 1,736,728 votes and was second to only Los Angeles Lakers guard and overall leading vote-getter Kobe Bryant — who garnered 2,380,016 votes — among Western Conference players. The voting verified, once and for all, that Durant is no longer the league's best kept secret. No longer is Durant a hidden gem in Oklahoma City. More than 1.7 million All-Star ballots suggest Durant's skills are now being recognized stateside as well as overseas. A year ago, Durant took in 870,567 votes, ranking 18th among all NBA players. This year, only five players received more votes than Durant. The spike is a tribute to Durant's previous three seasons of steady improvement and his one spectacular summer of 2010. “It feels good,” Durant said. “It's a great accomplishment to be voted in by the fans. It's something that I really appreciate. I wish I could personally thank everybody who voted for me.” In addition to Bryant, Durant is scheduled to be joined by New Orleans point guard Chris Paul and Denver forward Carmelo Anthony in the starting lineup for the Western Conference All-Star team. Houston center Yao Ming also was voted in as a starter, but Yao will not compete because of injury. NBA commissioner David Stern will pick a replacement following the conference coaches' selection of the team's reserves, which will be announced Feb. 3. Eastern Conference starters for the Feb. 20 All-Star Game inside Staples Center in L.A. include Chicago point guard Derrick Rose, Miami guard Dwyane Wade and forward LeBron James, New York forward Amar'e Stoudemire and Orlando center Dwight Howard. James, Wade, Rose and Howard are the other four who received more votes than Durant. Rose will be this year's only other first-time starter. “I'm just being myself and going out there and playing the game I love. And I guess people respect that,” Durant said. Durant, the 2008 Rookie of the Year, became the youngest player ever to lead the league in scoring last season when he averaged 30.1 points before finishing as the runner-up for MVP. Durant again leads the league in scoring this season, averaging 28.6 points while captaining the Thunder to a 29-16 record. Durant has scored at least 30 points in 17 games this season, and he has three games of 40 points or more. On Wednesday, Durant had a career-high 47-point, 18-rebound performance in a win at Minnesota. “I'm proud of the fact that I can say he does everything the right way,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “And he deserves all the accolades that he does get because he's a hardworking, team-first type of guy.” The world just couldn't catch on until Durant starred in last summer's FIBA World Championship in Istanbul, Turkey. As the undisputed face of Team USA, Durant led the national team to a gold medal, the country's first in the tournament since 1994. Durant was named MVP after averaging 22.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.4 steals in nine games. Durant set Team USA scoring records for total points with 205, as well as points in a single game with a 38-point performance in the semifinals against Lithuania. “I think fans overseas, especially in Europe, had a chance to get to know him,” said Thunder center Nenad Krstic, who competed for his native Serbia during the tournament. “My friends from back home, when they watched the world championship, they really didn't realize how good he is. They asked me after, ‘Is he really good like that?' He was the MVP. Even my teammates, everybody was amazed with his promise. And I think that really helped him for All-Star voting.” Durant also created a buzz and endeared himself to basketball fans in July by humbly announcing his five-year contract extension on his Twitter page. The method was a stark contrast to the supposed ill-advised route James took with a one hour nationally televised show to announce where he was taking his talents in free agency. “Just how he represents our team, our organization, our city, we should all be proud of how he handles himself,” Brooks said. “He's a very humble kid, a hardworking kid, and he plays for the right reasons. He's just a great teammate on and off the court.” Still just 22, Durant could continue to be a fixture as an All-Star Game starter for the next decade. It's a rather likely possibility that isn't lost on Durant. “People that normally get voted in as starters, down the line for years and years they continue to be voted in,” he said. “I've just got to enjoy this one while I can and just continue to try to get better every day as a person and as a player.”
Thunder vs. Wizards When: 7 p.m. Friday Where: Oklahoma City Arena TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD Ch. 722) Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM THREE THINGS TO KNOW * This is the first meeting between these two teams. The Thunder swept the two-game series last season. * Wizards rookie point guard John Wall, the No. 1 overall pick, ranks fifth in assists per game at 9.3. Wall has had at least 12 assists in 10 games this season. * The Thunder has won five straight games at home.