by Ryne Nelson / @slaman10

Who honestly remembers watching Kevin Durant in a Sonics uniform?

It was a time before owners were supervillains (with the exception of Seattle public enemy, Clay Bennett). Light years before superteams became en vogue. Eons before fans cared about international pro leagues.

In actuality, it was just over three years ago.

Outside of Seattle area, very few people watched a lot of the ’07-08 Sonics. Non-Sonics fans who watched every game? Well, that was probably only me.

See, when Durant’s career is over—when he’s inducted into the HOF—I’ll be rocking a Sonics trey-five jersey. Not necessarily because the threads will be exclusive, but because it was during his rookie season that I discovered what type of player Kevin Durant was.

I didn’t expect KD to become the second-best player in the L, but from jump, it was clear that KD would soon become a face. But with an unpopular move to OKC on the horizon, the NBA’s marketing train never stopped in Seattle. With a terrible record and a 19-year-old Durant as its centerpiece, the Sonics were mired both at the bottom of the standings and in people’s minds.

That’s why most people struggle to remember Kevin Durant’s first pro season. But I remember a few things…

Like when KD hit the game-winner against the Mavs in the Sonics’ final game in Seattle. Or when he nailed his second buzzer-beating three to prolong the game in Seattle against the Nuggets (Durant finished with 37 points, 9 dimes and 8 boards). Or when this filthy move made Shane “No Stats All-Star” Battier look, well… merely mortal.

Of course, those were just highlights. Durant’s jumper was erratic, and he crashed the glass more like a 6-0 PG than a lanky 6-9 forward. He lost a total of 62 games for the Sonics (even with Earl Watson, Chris Wilcox and rookie Jeff Green as supporting cast). But he showed a passion for the game unrivaled by anyone save the League’s megastars.

Kevin Durant spent his rookie campaign in NBA purgatory, trying to be the savior for a city that couldn’t be saved. His squad routinely got trampled in hollow arenas. It was an existence that could easily have taken the fire out of any player.

But Durant actually got better as his rookie season progressed. By April, Durant was putting up lines like 42 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists. Outside of Kobe Bryant and Monta Ellis, the still-green Kevin Durant was the most dynamic player on the West Coast.

He copped the ROY trophy that season, but people still didn’t pay Durant much attention until the Thunder began winning during his third season, KD’s second in Oklahoma City. And now, there’s really nothing left to be said.

He’s been to the Western Conference Finals. He’s twice led the L in scoring. Twice selected to the All-NBA First-Team. Won a gold medal at the World Championships in Turkey. And today, Kevin Durant firmly holds the title of first runner-up in the SLAMonline Top 50. He probably won’t drop on this list. Not for a while.

In a summer marked by greed, Durant’s only been giving—giving back to the game he loves. Dedication and passion light the path to basketball’s hallowed Hall. It’s refreshing to see Durant hasn’t veered even slightly.

No matter where he goes, what jersey he wears, Kevin Durant just plays basketball. KD passed his first test when he thrived through the toughest season in his career as a 19-year-old rookie.

That’s how I learned that no obstacle can stand in the way of Kevin Durant. And that’s why I’ll be rocking KD’s Sonics jersey when the Hall comes calling.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Luol Deng Bulls SF 8
49 Andrew Bogut Bucks C 7
48 Ray Allen Celtics SG 9
47 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 6
46 David West Hornets PF 15
45 Kevin Martin Rockets SG 8
44 Andrew Bynum Lakers C 5
43 Brandon Jennings Bucks PG 11
42 Lamar Odom Lakers PF 14
41 Gerald Wallace Blazers SF 7
40 Brook Lopez Nets C 4
39 Joakim Noah Bulls C 3
38 Carlos Boozer Bulls PF 13
37 Kevin Garnett Celtics PF 12
36 Eric Gordon Clippers SG 7
35 Tony Parker Spurs PG 10
34 Andre Iguodala 76ers SG 6
33 Al Jefferson Jazz PF 11
32 Al Horford Hawks C 2
31 Stephen Curry Warriors PG 9
30 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 10
29 Josh Smith Hawks PF 9
28 Manu Ginobili Spurs SG 5
27 Tyreke Evans Kings PG 8
26 Rudy Gay Grizzlies SF 6
25 John Wall Wizards PG 7
24 Danny Granger Pacers SF 5
23 Monta Ellis Warriors SG 4
22 Joe Johnson Hawks SG 3
21 Paul Pierce Celtics SF 4
20 Steve Nash Suns PG 6
19 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 8
18 LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 7
17 Chris Bosh Heat PF 6
16 Kevin Love TWolves PF 5
15 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 5
14 Blake Griffin Clippers PF 4
13 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 3
12 Russell Westbrook Thunder PG 4
11 Amar’e Stoudemire Knicks PF 2
10 Deron Williams Nets PG 3
9 Carmelo Anthony Knicks SF 3
8 Chris Paul Hornets PG 2
7 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 1
6 Dwight Howard Magic C 1
5 Dwyane Wade Heat SG 2
4 Derrick Rose Bulls PG 1
3 Kobe Bryant Lakers SG 1
2 Kevin Durant Thunder SF 2
1 LeBron James Heat SF 1

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.