By Sally Jenkins
Thursday, June 28, 2007
The NBA can stop its searchlight hunt for the next great player, with its strained attempts to manufacture supermen and hard-sell heroes. He's here, his name is Kevin Durant, and if the Portland Trail Blazers pass on him in the NBA draft in favor of Greg Oden, they'll rue it. Durant is a player for a new era, while a center like Oden, good as he might be, is a dinosaur by comparison. Draft Oden, and you get a guy who can play one position. Draft Durant, and you get a guy who can play five.
For months now I've been conducting my own searchlight hunt for the right words to describe Durant, ever since the night he reduced me to a stammering insomniac, sleeplessly agape as I watched him lay 37 points and 12 rebounds on Oklahoma State in triple overtime, just maybe the most gigantic performance ever from a boy without a driver's license. Words failed then, and now.
Fortunately, somebody else found the phrases to capture this kid, on the blog FreeDarko, where the game is oft described in terms foulmouthed yet poetic, and praise isn't handed out lightly: "So sweeping, angelic, and sweetly electric a player we have almost never seen; if LeBron [James] makes the game up as he goes along, Durant effortlessly inhabits everything we know it to be." Wish I'd written that.
Here's the deal. When you watch sports your whole life, a certain creeping boredom can set in and you become like a movie critic who's seen too many films. Then an athlete comes along who makes you sit up straight in your chair and yell, "Good God almighty, what was that?"
You know it when you see it, and more important, you feel it, like a stun gun sensation, or a crack of lightning, or maybe a giant gong going off next to your head. Rookie Dwight Gooden warming up on the mound, with a motion of pure dynamism and a popping sound in the mitt so sharp it makes you wonder if a bullet just tore through your coat. The amateur Tiger Woods, teeing off in his first Masters with a swing that could drive a ball through a chain-link fence. A teenage Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open, uncoiling a serve like a knotted rope.
If there's a common earmark to great athletes, it's this: They don't seem to play the game so much as it plays them. That's Durant. He is all ease and flow, a river on the court.
"There's nowhere inside the lines he isn't comfortable," says his coach at Texas, Rick Barnes. "He can play anywhere. If we had to make him our point guard this year, he could've been our point guard. He shoots one of the softest shots you ever seen. And he's really long. I'm telling you, there's nothing he can't do on a basketball court. If you want to make him a low-post player, and as he continues to develop and puts on 20, 25 pounds, he can go down and be a low-post player. And he can really pass it, too. We felt like the worst thing we could do is put him in one area, where everybody can find him."
The NBA is evolving, and the new era is all about Durant's brand of improvisation and versatility. Those traditionalists who argue that Portland should make 7-foot center Oden the No. 1 pick because centers are the foundation of a franchise aren't necessarily wrong, but if Portland intends to build on Oden's back, he better turn out to be Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal, which is to say, a player of the decade. And frankly, even the great Duncan relies on the speed and agility of his San Antonio teammates -- you could argue that it was their ability to continually score on the move that makes them so deadly.
You get the sense that increasingly, it's not centers but hybrids like Durant who will rule the game, players who are big yet agile, and can shoot like guards. He is clearly the next evolution, a player of size and sprawling wingspan who can also run to any spot on the floor and score, and who is impossible to consistently find, or stop.
It's been said repeatedly in the last few weeks that the Trail Blazers can't make a wrong decision with the No. 1 pick in this draft, but in fact, they may well look back with regret if they leave Durant on the table. Yes, as luck would have it, both come with talent, impeccable work ethic and immensely appealing personalities. But if Oden is potentially great, Durant is potentially unlimited. There is the sense that he's also destined to be the bigger star, an intuition apparently shared by Nike.
It's not merely that he's a born player. He apparently also has every good habit and trait NBA execs could wish for in a rookie. He is sweet-tempered and mannerly, with a gentle streak that endeared him to anyone who knew him at Texas, right down to the team managers, for whom he kept score and fetched ice in intramurals. He reflexively credits others, and was uncomfortable with the idea that he overshadowed his teammates. "Without four players with me on the floor, I couldn't play," he says. "So I don't think it's all about me. I'd rather be about my team than myself."
Despite a supporting cast of no-names and fellow freshmen at Texas, and the fact that opponents continually left them to triple-team him, Durant was a selfless passer who would tell his teammates, "Hey, you got to shoot that [expletive]." Barnes would tell him he didn't have to give the ball up so much, especially to inferior shooters. Durant would say, "They'll make it, Coach." And he is a pleaser, who has a hard time leaving any autograph seeker unsatisfied. When Barnes told him he didn't have to sign every single one, Durant replied, "I was a kid who wanted autographs." Barnes says, "He doesn't want to ever disappoint you."
A player with Durant's combination of natural gifts, fundamental soundness and personal charm is surpassingly rare. The chance you take in not drafting him is greater than the chance you take in choosing him No.1. "If somebody asks me, 'Would you be surprised if he becomes all-everything?' I say, 'I'd probably be surprised if he's not,' " Barnes said. "As opposed to the other way around."