Name: Kevin Durant
Nickname: "KD," "Slim," "Durantula"
Kevin Durant has enjoyed an ascendancy to the near-top of the mountain that few other players have experienced. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Durant began climbing the ranks of AAU basketball in Prince George's County, MD. He played with a number of other high profile basketball players during this time, including close friends Michael Beasley and Ty Lawson. During his AAU years, Durant elected to wear #35 on his jersey (he still does today) in honor of his slain mentor, Charles Craig.
Durant played hoops at some of the most recognizable high school programs in the country during his high school career. He began at National Christian Academy, transferred to Oak Hill Academy, and finished up his high school career at Montrose Christian School in MD, all the while growing 7 inches, winning the Washington Post All Met Basketball Player of the Year, being named a McDonalds All-American in 2006 (and co-MVP of the 2006 All-Star game with, no joke, Chase Buddinger), and one of the most sought-after incoming freshmen in the country.
Durant selected to travel to the University of Texas to join the Longhorns. He started every game as a freshman and led Texas to the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament, averaging 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. His success on the court was recognized across the NCAA landscape, as Durant won the NACB Division I Player of the Year award, the Naismith Award, the Oscar Robinson Trophy, the Adolph F. Rupp Trophy, and the John R. Wooden Award. Durant declared himself eligible for the NBA draft after his freshman season. Shortly thereafter, the University of Texas retired his #35 jersey.
Durant was selected by the Seattle Supersonics with the #2 pick of the 2007 draft. Caught in the midst of a team overhaul, the first year of Durant's pro career did not go well. The team won only 20 games in his first season, and the still rail-thin Durant struggled against the more athletic and physical NBA veterans. Despite his struggles, Durant continued to work hard and show great improvement. In his last game as a rookie, Durant scored 42 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and finished the season averaging over 20 points per game. He was named the NBA Rookie of the Year.
The next year was almost as challenging, as the Sonics won only 23 games in Durant's second season. The situation began to improve however when after 13 games the team fired their coach P.J. Carlisimo and handed current coach Scott Brooks the reins. Joined by fellow determined youngster Russell Westbrook, the duo began to make inroads on improving the team. A season later, Durant had helped his team turn around from being a 23 win lottery joke to a 50 win team that was ready to challenge the Lakers in the playoffs. Durant and the Thunder had arrived.
In 2011, Durant finished 5th place in MVP voting, guided his young Thunder team to 55 wins in the regular season, received a #3 seed playoff birth, made an appearance in the Western Conference finals, and turned 23 years old. The bar was set pretty darn high.
The challenge for Durant coming into the 2011-12 season was to figure out ways to utilize his prodigious ability so that his skills and talents were better maximized. Yes, Durant was a great shooter, but could he learn how to create better shot opportunities? Yes, Durant was a capable passer, but could he learn how to run a fast break properly? Yes, Durant got excited to play man-to-man defense against the rest of the NBA's greats, but could he do it against the not-as-greats?
In other words, Durant's task heading into the season was to transform himself from a great player into a player who knew how to play great.
Regular Season Grade: A-
Durant played a much better 2011-12 than from the previous year. I chalk this up to better conditioning, better training, and more playoff experience. Despite a small drop in number of free throw attempts (goodbye, rip move), Durant scored at a more efficient pace overall and increased his responsibility in ball handling in the process.
Durant, the playmaker was a mixed bag. My guess is that he spent enough time watching LeBron play and realized that to be a complete ball player, you have to be able to do all of those things - run a team, pass the ball, and run set offenses. At times Durant filled into this role beautifully, showcasing a much deeper understanding of the game. However, there were also times when Durant seemed to forget that he's 6'10" and not 6'2" and when he drives, the ball has to travel a long distance from his hand to the floor. Too many times he would try to split double-teams off the dribble, only to see a smaller and quicker player strip the ball and run the other way. Durant will need to clean up this tendency if he is to continue to grow as a playmaker.
Durant was recognized for his performance on a regular basis in the NBA. He was honored with the Western Conference Player of the Week on 3 occasions and won the Western Conference Player of the month back to back, for the months of February and March. On top of that, Durant was selected to start his second consecutive All-Star Game and scored a game-high 36 points, which propelled him to being named the 2012 All-Star Game MVP. Durant finished second in MVP voting for the regular season, behind LeBron James.
As great as the first four months of Durant's season was, however, there was a noticeable let-down when the season reached the month of April. OKC struggled to a barely-over .500 record for the month and lost their #1 seed to the surging Spurs. While the lethargy was certainly a team issue, a team needs to look to its leader, and a leader must lead through such struggles. Durant needed to do a better job during this time when the team was resting on its laurels, and his failure to motivate his team properly gives him a slight ding on his overall regular season grade.
Post-Season Grade: A (Overall)
A season before, Durant had a rocky trip through the playoffs. He would alternate between great games and other games where he would disappear. Furthermore, he allowed opposing defenses to dictate to him, rather than the other way around.
In 2012, Durant flipped that script permanently.
Round 1 vs Mavericks: B
In a way, it was fitting that the Thunder's 1st round opponent was the same team that vanquished them in the previous season's playoffs and that Durant would get another crack at his nemesis Shawn Marion. Marion has been the best Durant-stopper in these past two seasons because Marion combines the perfect mix of physicality, athleticism, intelligence, and savvy to keep Durant working all game. Marion shut down Durant in 2011 and was eager to do it again.
As Game 1 drew to a close, it looked like Marion had become the Durant-stopper once more. Suddenly, everything changed.
OKC, the team that couldn't quite figure out how to beat Dallas a year ago, finally figured out how to make the winning plays in the end. This Game 1 rescue set up the Thunder to roll off three more wins, sweeping the defending champs. Aside from Game 3, Durant did not play at a spectacular level, but that is perhaps a compliment, because he didn't need to. What he DID need to do was clear out of the way and wait his turn while Russell Westbrook battered the Mavericks from inside and outside. When it was finally time for Durant to step up on the road in Game 3, he was ready.
Round 2 vs Lakers: A+
Kevin Durant was everything you'd expect your team's leader to be - poised, unhurried, confident, and made all the right plays at the right time. Often times he was the best player on the court and you barely realized he was out there. Metta World Peace played him well defensively, and KD still shot 52% from the floor and almost 40% from 3-point range. On top of that, Durant was the key defender guarding Kobe Bryant in the 4th quarter of games, and he did a great job in keeping Kobe from stealing Games 2, 4, and 5.
With all of the hoopla surrounding the Lakers' new and improved line-up, I think it is important to remember moments like Game 4:
Did the Lakers do anything really to hinder the ease at which Durant is able to score against them? At all? Keep that in mind when the ESPN world names the Lakers the NBA champions of November.
Round 3 vs Spurs: A
Durant had grown stronger and stronger as the playoffs progressed and he culminated it by leading his team to a remarkable come-from-behind series win against what was the best team in the NBA. Down 0-2 and on the brink of collapsing, Durant led his young team to a tied series, went into San Antonio and shocked the Spurs on their home court, and set OKC up for his first Finals appearance.
It is remarkable how far Durant's overall game has come along over these past two seasons, as he has realized that he has the ability to dominate in more aspects than just scoring. He shot a remarkable 53.2% for the series and his shot selection was the biggest aspect of his ability to finish plays consistently. It was great to see that Durant was at his best when the stakes were highest. Most importantly, the areas where he was timid in the early going, he learned to be the aggressor in the end.
By the time the horn sounded at the end of Game 6, we were treated to this poignant scene.
Finals vs Heat: B+
Durant had a funny kind of series and we'll remember it in a funny kind of way. If you look at his performance, the numbers don't lie. When Durant was on the court and engaged, he was all but unstoppable. He wasn't tossing up 30 jumpers a game to get his average; KD's points were coming in the same efficient way that we've come to expect that have shown his growth in offensive discernment. And yet, I leave the Finals as a whole thinking that he left an entire higher level of play (and maybe 2 levels) on the table because he didn't quite know how to tap into it. No disrespect to LeBron James, who did an outstanding job against Durant throughout, but there were enough times when James was NOT guarding Durant where KD was not able to capitalize. Furthermore, he still has a tendency to zone out when he's not playing on-ball defense, and his lack of rebounding gave the Heat added opportunities to stay in games. The two additional levels - one physical, one mental - are there. That's the next step.
Let us also never forget the pain that we saw painted all over Durant as he had to embrace losing his first Finals. As agonizing as it was to watch him fall into his mom's arms one more time, not out of joy but out of sorrow, we know that he will use it to fuel himself to be ready the next time opportunity knocks.
Most Memorable Game:
I am going to split this category in two because every game in the playoffs that the Thunder won was a better game for Durant than any win during the regular season. That said, He had some pretty amazing games in both.
I've written it before and I'll write it again. the Denver Nuggets are to Durant what the Cavaliers were to Jordan.
"That's probably one of the best regular-season games that I've played in since I've been here, or the best. Kevin had 50, Russell had 40 and Serge had a triple-double. What else can you say?" - James Harden
Durant's maturation as a player, competitor, and late-game specialist was crystallized perfectly in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder were playing for their playoff lives; a loss would send them back to San Antonio down 3-1, a deficit likely too great to overcome.
Entering the 4th quarter, the Thunder were clinging to a 2-possession lead. The Spurs offense was revving up and ready to come back, and the Thunder had to continue to produce good shots in order to keep the Spurs at arms' length.
Durant answered the call by putting on a 4th quarter performance worthy of mention next to the likes of Jordan, Kobe, Bird, and all the rest of the greats.
Sixteen straight points and 18 total points in the final 7 minutes of the 4th quarter were barely enough, but they were enough.
Most Memorable Single Moment:
Durant's playoffs featured numerous moments where he stood head and shoulders above the rest, such as the Dallas Game 1 winner (above). However, I want to rewind us all the way back to the beginning of the season and look at OKC's very first game against Dallas:
This shot set the stage for Durant's and OKC's run to the Finals, and it serves as the perfect beginning bookend for how Durant helped finish off the defending champs in the playoffs.
At the risk of rehashing a painful memory, I also want to highlight this shot:
I'm not kidding when I say that not a day goes by that I don't think about this missed shot, which served as the beginning of the end for the Thunder in the Finals.
While most of the discussion and frustration that came out of this play was aimed at LeBron's apparent uncalled foul on Durant as the shot went up, what sticks with me is how Durant failed to play to his strengths. Durant has a deadly move (which he adopted from Kobe) where he drives hard to the baseline and then shoots an unblockable fadeaway, but he didn't use that. Durant has also gotten stronger and used that strength to attack the basket and dunk on people bigger than him, but he didn't do that either. Instead, Durant got caught halfway between one and the other and tossed up a weak shot that came up short. I have to think that if Durant had his mind set on getting to the rim that he would have, and worst case scenario would have either gotten the dunk or gotten the foul on LeBron or Chris Bosh.
As Michael Jordan once said to himself, "I coulda dunked...you shoulda dunked." Next time.
Bonus: Olympics Grade: A-
Kevin Durant was part of Team USA that took home gold this summer. He was arguably the second-best player on the court (behind LeBron, just like in the regular season) and he barely even touched the ball. Durant proved that he is without question the best catch-and-shoot player on the planet, as he essentially assumed the Ray Allen role for the duration. What was most impressive though was that any time the game got tight, he and LeBron worked together beautifully to put the team's lead out of reach. Durant's "I'll score whenever you need me to score" was the perfect compliment to LeBron's playmaking and we can only hope the pair team up again in the future.
We can separate Durant's abilities into two general categories - the things he can do well now, and the things he could do well in the future. Right now, Durant is the best scorer on the planet, has turned into a very good defensive rebounder, and has vastly improved his on-ball defense.
Where does the ceiling go to from here? Durant is perhaps forever going to be chasing LeBron as the league's MVP, but that might be a good thing. As long as Durant has somebody else to chase, he will never be content with where he is. Whether it is playmaking, offensive rebounding, perimeter defense, or setting up other teammates, Durant has a friend, competitor, and an icon by which he can measure himself. Durant may never equal LeBron, but that's ok. Being second best might just be good enough to win a ring.
A: Far exceeded expectations
B: Exceeded expectations
C: Met expectations
D: Did not meet expectations
F: Fell far short of expectations
Other Player Grades: