While speaking to reporters this week at a two-day USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, Durant joked he couldn’t go anywhere this summer without someone on the street “trying him” with a challenge to play one-on-one.
“I guess they haven’t seen me in a while,” Durant said with a smile.
Aside from watching the Oklahoma City Thunder’s summer league team in Orlando, Durant had maintained a relatively low profile this offseason. But Durant re-introduced himself to the world basketball stage, as one of the 34 American players — including reigning MVP Curry, the player’s choice MVP Harden and four-time MVP James — invited to train in non-contact drills in anticipation of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Showing no ill effects from having bone graft surgery on his right foot nearly four months ago, Durant was relaxed, invigorated and assured that the time away had done nothing to diminish his stature in the game.
“I feel like I’m the best player in the world,” Durant told reporters this week. “No disrespect to other players here, but I always got that confidence. … I never had no doubts in myself.”
And any concerns about being overlooked will soon vanish as Durant embarks on a season in which the scrutiny will be unlike any other, in which the annual questions about whether this will indeed be the year he finally becomes an NBA champion will be tossed into a gumbo of ancillary, mostly non-basketball related distractions.
His every step will be examined, largely because he’s coming back from a right foot injury that required three foot surgeries and robbed him of all but 27 games last season. His relationship with new Thunder Coach Billy Donovan will be analyzed, because Durant was an ally of Scott Brooks and hasn’t had to adjust to a new system or personality on the bench in more than six years. And his every utterance or sagacious dodge about his pending free agency next summer will be parsed and broken down, with teams from Washington to Los Angeles, Miami to Portland and all spots in between all possessing the hope — and financial means under the league’s new salary structure — of luring Durant out of the mid-South.
“I know it’s coming,” Durant said this week. “It’s the year, I’m coming off the injury, a lot of people are expecting me to do this and come back as a better player and a lot of people may be doubting me as well. But that’s part of the game. I’m just trying to have fun playing the game. I just want to smile on the court again and go through that whole season with joy and peace.”
After a highly frustrating and uniquely miserable encore to his MVP season, Durant seems well prepared for the challenges ahead. He even cued up a hilarious response to a question about the looming Summer of Durant and non-stop recruitment from his peers.
“I haven’t even thought about [free agency] recruiting,” Durant said. “I’m just trying to out there and not get cussed out by Russell Westbrook.”
The brilliance of that answer is it revealed how far removed Durant is from what used to be the most annoying, highly-discussed aspect of his career before so much other stuff — for lack of a better word — started to take precedence. Back in the place where the District native made some rather innocuous comments last summer about his love for his hometown, setting off a firestorm and adding even more fuel to a burgeoning #KD2DC movement; and where Paul George’s gruesome injury in a televised scrimmage forced him to make an unpopular decision by withdrawing from the world championships, Durant was ready to push forward without contributing to the spectacle.
And, whereas the whole exercise of being in Las Vegas looked and felt like a burden last summer — when he was exhausted after carrying the Thunder for a large portion of the season without Westbrook and distracted by shoe contract negotiations — Durant embraced the chance to make amends with USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, to be reunited with the NBA’s elite, to simply be back on the court.
“Remember Christmas as a kid?” Durant said. “It’s like that.”
Having experienced “cabin fever” from playing NBA2K at home while quietly recovering from that troublesome foot injury, Durant was more appreciative of the moments he started to take for granted. Durant set minor “championship” goals during his rehabilitation, check-marking his every progression – putting on a shoe, walking with two shoes, running on a treadmill, jogging, driving his car with no assistance, dunking and so on. Those minor steps kept him motivated to keep going.
“I don’t think I had any lows. I went through some adversity but that’s a part of life. That’s a part of this journey. It was tough, don’t get me wrong. But I never quit. I never thought I got worse as a player. I never thought that,” he said. “I hit some adversity, a couple of bumps. But from the way I was raised, the way my mom raised me, my brother and my dad, you keep fighting through them.”
With the Thunder missing the playoffs only three years after his only NBA Finals appearance, Durant was admittedly “envious” of the success his contemporaries attained in absence. He also believes that the sustained health of the Thunder’s roster is all that stands in the way of him capturing that elusive title.
The Golden State Warriors are the defending champions, the San Antonio Spurs have reloaded with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and the Los Angeles Clippers made some much-needed roster upgrades while retaining DeAndre Jordan. That hasn’t changed where Durant ranks the Thunder in the Western Conference.
“Right up at the top. A lot of people may forget about us because we were injured, last year we didn’t make the playoffs, but we’ve got a really good team. I’m coming back. Russell’s coming back stronger, a better player than he was last season. I like our team,” Durant said, while calling Westbrook’s MVP-caliber play without him and Serge Ibaka, “Amazing. … I was [upset] I wasn’t out there to help him out.”
Though he stated that he’s “100 percent,” Durant won’t participate in Thursday’s showcase game at UNLV as he remains sensible with his latest comeback. Too much is at stake this upcoming season and Durant won’t be able to avoid the torrent of attention that will come in his ninth season. He’ll quickly go from being a not-so-distant memory to the forefront of the discussion with so many unnerving storylines, baseless rumors and endless speculation.
“I am looking forward to it,” Durant said. “I can’t wait. Boo me. Call me any type of name in the book. Talk about my family. I’m ready for it.”