by Matt Caputo / Images via Getty

Originally published in SLAM #129

It’s a busy pre-game on the court at the TD BankNorth Garden in Boston, and Kevin Durant is putting in work. Even though Durant was last season’s ROY, he’s been largely ignored this season, presumably because the 6-10 swingman’s immense promise has mainly been displayed in two of the NBA’s small markets. But know this: Kevin Durant is one of the top-five scorers in the NBA this season, and among 20-year-olds throughout NBA history, Durant has totaled more points than Kobe, Melo or Ice Man were able to. And don’t look now, but KD might just be bringing some respect to the unheralded Oklahoma City Thunder.

“When we came to Oklahoma City, I wanted myself to become a better player than I was last year,” Durant says, sitting courtside during pre-game, his lanky arms in his lap. “I wanted to be one of the guys people talked about, so I continued to work hard and get better. I want this team to be a team that everybody is talking about.”

But people have been talking about him for a while now, and what they’re saying is he could be the next great player to dominate in the NBA. That may all sound like hot air considering his team is in last place, won less than 25 games this year and is nicknamed the “Thunder.” Consider that he’s nearly 7-0 with body mechanics like a gymnast, a versatile scorer, strong on the defensive glass and playing in a city with a population of less than two million people, and maybe people aren’t just blowing smoke up your crack.

Durant first surfaced on the national radar as a towering 9th grader at National Christian Academy before transferring to Oak Hill. For his junior and senior years, he moved to Montrose Christian School in Rockville, MD, where he was named a McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-American. He was a teammate of Mike Beasley on several PG Jaguars teams that took the AAU National Championships, and he also played with Ty Lawson as part of the BC Devils AAU program. Through a kind of basketball apprenticeship, Durant has learned the game while playing on the highest levels he possibly could. 56696267

“The more notoriety that he gets, the more money that he earns, the more humble he has become, even more so than when he was 17 years old, I think,” says David Adkins, who served as an assistant coach at Montrose Christian and is known for training many DC-area NBA players. “Kevin wants to be a great, he’s got an inner passion for it. He used to get so excited when he would get good grades. He has a passion for wanting to do things the right way.”

His single season at the University of Texas was one of the best freshman seasons in NCAA history. He averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, was the first freshman to collect both the Naismith and Wooden Awards, was an AP First Team All-American and was the NABC Player of the Year. Though the Longhorns had high expectations, they lost in the Big 12 finals, and then again in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to USC. After just one year in Austin, Durant opted for the earn-while-you-learn flexibility of turning pro. Still, many players with similar accolades had been drafted that high and with at least as much hype. But not many were immediately handed the keys to their new NBA franchise.

All of the honors led up to the ’07 NBA Draft, where KD was picked second behind Greg Oden. As the Sonics slouched through their final season in Seattle with a 20-62 record, Durant emerged as the city’s last great NBA hero and was voted Rookie of the Month five times. In the Rookie/Sophomore game, he registered the highest point total (46) in All-Star Weekend history. Watching him play as a rookie, there was a sense of continuity from his time in Austin.

“You could tell he was still a kid when he first came into the League,” says Knicks forward Chris Wilcox, Durant’s teammate in Seattle and briefly in OKC. “But at the same time, he was a professional and he was going to come to practice and do his job and then some.”

Not long after Durant was officially named ROY, the Sonics left the city of Seattle. Team owner Clay Bennett, despite adamant protest by Sonics fans, relocated the team to his hometown of Oklahoma City, where he acted as host to the New Orleans Hornets during Hurricane Katrina. By now, Durant has lived a relatively transient basketball lifestyle; OKC became the Washington, DC native’s sixth move of school or state in seven years.“I moved around so much that it really doesn’t matter to me anymore,” Durant says, wiping sweat from his face with a towel, a leftover from his pre-game workout. “I guess all the relocating I did prepared me for it. I’m looking forward to being in Oklahoma City next year and staying put, though.”

The Sonics’ transition to the Thunder came with its fair share of stormy weather and puddles. The team was officially nicknamed late, and many casual NBA fans were unaware the Sonics had moved at all. Despite a roster featuring a number of talented young players, including Durant, Jeff Green and rookie Russell Westbrook, the Thunder endured an early 14-game losing streak, which led to veteran coach PJ Carlesimo joining the unemployment line by Thanksgiving. PJ was replaced by former NBA guard Scott Brooks.

“With Kevin, it’s pretty unique that he’s 20 years old, but he’s matured a lot this season,” Brooks said in March. Brooks compiled a 22-47 record, as the Thunder finished the year at 23-59. “It’s kind of a scary thought saying that a 20-year-old is mature.” D066093038.JPG

Oklahoma City might be the perfect place for a player of Durant’s potential to grow. There are very few distractions and even if there were, several sources note that Durant doesn’t indulge in the customary NBA vices, like excessive spending and partying. When he’s not at practice or staying after to improve his weaknesses, he invites his neighbors’ kids over to play video games, goes to the movies or spends time studying his new hobby, making hip-hop beats. But mostly, he’s dealing with challenges: The challenge to become a better player while dealing with losing games; the challenge of being a young man in the NBA; the challenge of mastering the parts of his game that are seen as less-polished.

Although they struggled to be consistent, the Thunder tried to play strong and tough with Brooks at the helm. They traded for Thabo Sefolosha and veteran Malik Rose, adding youth and character to a promising line-up. The Thunder stole two victories from the Spurs in March, as Durant scored 25 in the first game and 31 in the second. The team had certainly progressed from a squad no one knew existed. But sometimes, even when Durant is at his best, the Thunder can’t win (like the January road game against the Clippers where KD went for 46 points and 15 boards in a 107-104 loss).

“Sometimes I blame myself. My mom and brothers, they tell me not to do that,” Durant says. “I think I doubted myself more last year than I did this year. I think I’m more confident. I feel like God has given me these abilities and I can’t doubt him.”

Still, there are growing pains. Frustration is a by-product of excessive losing, being dogged in the press for the slow progress of his post-up game and questioned about his defense. But it isn’t Durant’s style to look for excuses. He’s willing to take credit for the things he does that are good and even those that might stink.

“It was tough because, in high school and college, I never guarded guys on the perimeter that much,” says Durant. “But, I’m not making excuses. I think I’m getting better at it. I know I have to guard my man to the best of my ability. I have a long way to go. I know sometimes I might be inconsistent, but that’s what I’m working on.”

Tonight in Boston, the Thunder lose another outing where they show heart and promise if not wisdom and composure. Durant gets three quick fouls in the first quarter and spends a large part of the first half on the bench. He deals with a little shoving while mismatched with Stephon Marbury, and gets another lesson in remaining on the court through foul trouble. He still manages to score 21 points in the 103-84 loss. For Durant and his young and improving teammates, it’s another night of learning and progress.

As Oklahoma City finishes its first full season of operation, the future is rooted in the chemistry and progress of its young players. Brooks was recently retained for next season. Durant, Green, Westbrook and veteran forward Nick Collison should all benefit from whatever whiz kid GM Sam Presti is able to do this summer with Oklahoma City’s two first round picks. “I don’t like to say we’re building the team around me,” says Durant. “It’s like a puzzle, we’re just trying to put the pieces together and make it look good. It’s just a matter of time before we start making a run at the Playoffs, so we all know we have to get better as a team. I think the guys here now are great pieces. I’m anxious to see who we could bring in this summer.” 56815116

Durant’s numbers improved in nearly every category in his sophomore season, and he won’t turn 21 until just before training camp opens. He’s earned respect for a franchise some passionate NBA fans disliked on principle simply by playing to the best of his ability and showing he wants to win wherever he is. Durant is aware of his critics and their criticisms, and they drive him to get better. Other than that, Durant doesn’t allow himself to get too gassed or caught up in passing winds. He’s a regular dude, your close friend or relative—the really talented one. The one who is going to be the NBA’s next superstar.

“Winning and all that other stuff is going to come,” says Thunder point guard Earl Watson. “I think he’s got the potential to be a great weak-side shot-blocker, something you saw LeBron doing this year. I think Kevin is going to create a lot of shots, whether he does it like T-Mac does, off of a high pick-and-roll or kicking it out when he’s posting up. He’ll be able to take you off the dribble, too. What he’s going to be able to accomplish is unlimited. He’s special, because he does things you can’t teach.”