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
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2
31Stephen CurryWarriorsPG9
30Tim DuncanSpursPF10
29Josh SmithHawksPF9
28Manu GinobiliSpursSG5
27Tyreke EvansKingsPG8
26Rudy GayGrizzliesSF6
25John WallWizardsPG7
24Danny GrangerPacersSF5
23Monta EllisWarriorsSG4
22Joe JohnsonHawksSG3
21Paul PierceCelticsSF4
20Steve NashSunsPG6
19Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF8
18LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF7
17Chris BoshHeatPF6
16Kevin LoveTWolvesPF5
15Rajon RondoCelticsPG5
14Blake GriffinClippersPF4
13Pau GasolLakersPF3
12Russell WestbrookThunderPG4
11Amar’e StoudemireKnicksPF2
10Deron WilliamsNetsPG3
9Carmelo AnthonyKnicksSF3
8Chris PaulHornetsPG2
7Dirk NowitzkiMavsPF1
6Dwight HowardMagicC1
5Dwyane WadeHeatSG2
4Derrick RoseBullsPG1
3Kobe BryantLakersSG1
2Kevin DurantThunderSF2
1LeBron JamesHeatSF1

Notes
• 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.