For Durant, sitting still is hardly OK

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 7, 2010

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EDMOND, Okla. — The question Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant asks himself every day is not, “How can I be this good this young?’’ Or, “Am I going to win the MVP?’’ Or, “When is the new Drake CD about to drop?’’

The question that the 22-year-old Durant asks himself every day, before his size 18 feet hit the carpet of his suburban Oklahoma City home, is “How can I get better?’’

Last Friday, the answer was by getting more rest. For the first time in weeks, and following games in Los Angeles Wednesday and in Portland Thursday, Durant bypassed a chance to hit the gym on a day off so he could get some sleep.

Following his respite, Durant was back at work at the team’s practice facility. And while his teammates lifted, showered, dressed, and filed out into the cool, sunny afternoon, Durant was participating in a two-on-two game with three assistant coaches. As usual, he was the last player to leave the building.

Durant is a 6-foot-9-inch wunderkind, a shooting guard in a center’s body, blessed with the ability to handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter, while long enough to drive to the basket in two strides for a dunk. He has developed into one of the league’s most entertaining players and top offensive forces, but carries the mentality and work ethic of the final man on the roster, never taking anything for granted.

When it was widely mentioned that he was one of the NBA’s top three players, Durant tweeted that he was nowhere near that level, and the new season merely presented an opportunity to get better. His legendary work ethic helped earn him the distinction of being the youngest player to lead the league in scoring.

He averaged 30.1 points last season and his Thunder squad, torn down and reconstructed by general manager Sam Presti, won 50 games and pushed the defending champion Lakers to six games in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

So what now for an encore? The simple answer: get better.

When asked if he is an MVP-caliber player, he said, “I’m not, man. I got a long way to go. My game needs to improve a lot. It’s my fourth year in the league. I didn’t learn everything in these last three years.

“I’ve got to keep pushing and keep watching film and keep getting better after practices. Hopefully I can continue to just keep growing. I’m just trying to win, that’s all.’’

Bright lights, small city
After one season at the University of Texas, Durant began his career as a Seattle SuperSonic, although he played there for one season before the franchise moved to Oklahoma City. The moment the relocation was announced, there was speculation that Durant would bolt for a larger market.

The Thunder were eligible to sign Durant to a contract extension this summer, and there was anxiety as to whether the 2010 All-Star would demand a three-year deal, just as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James did after their third season. In his matter-of-fact manner, Durant announced on his Twitter page that he agreed to a five-year extension worth $85 million.

He made the maximum commitment to his organization and the city, personifying the togetherness culture Presti — a Concord native and former Emerson College player — has stressed since taking over the club at age 31.

“We understand how fortunate we are that he not only approaches his profession with tremendous grace and focus, but also that he understands that part of leading others is being part of them,’’ Presti said. “And that expectation is something that comes from within him.

“But we also, as an organization, know he still has a long way to go and we’re going to support him as he goes through some ups and downs.’’

Face of a franchise
Only a select few players have been handed the keys to an organization as Durant was when the franchise moved to Oklahoma City. Magic Johnson was immediately anointed the leader of the Lakers in 1979 as a brash rookie from Michigan State. And the Cleveland Cavaliers were accused of tanking the 2002-03 season for the opportunity to begin their reincarnation with local product James.

But those were established teams. The Thunder were an unknown entity playing in a town that had never permanently housed a major league sports team. While the fan base in Oklahoma has embraced Durant like a star Sooners running back, he has rewarded them by catapulting the franchise to a Western Conference power in two short years.

And Presti, with the shrewd use of draft picks and trade exceptions, was able to surround Durant with capable young talent such as Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, and James Harden. The Thunder are a bunch of twentysomethings with nothing but time on their hands and desire to be great, just as their leader.

“I never really thought about anything else besides me being here when I made that decision [to re-sign],’’ he said. “Hopefully that draws players here and they want to play for our team.

“To be honest, when people hear ‘Oklahoma City’, they really don’t think too much about it. But now they see what type of team we have, the type of players, the good guys we have. Hopefully guys want to come out here and play.

“When I made my decision I was first off thinking about myself and my family and how I would be living here for five more years. I wasn’t thinking about other free agents and what they would do.’’

Durant’s decision to stay made Presti’s job of selling the Oklahoma City culture easier. Superstars can be happy in smaller markets, away from the party scene and distractions of the big city. Durant is content to spend time with teammates, play video games, and critique his game on tape, his biggest passion.

“The one thing I always say when asked about Kevin is I see his game change on almost a daily basis,’’ Presti said. “But the person he is has remained the same since I met him in June of 2007. He’s got a tremendous instinct when it comes to team and family, and a very strong grasp that repetition is not meant for immediate gratification. He really embraces that.’’

Working it out
The road to excellence has been bumpy this season at best. The Thunder were bounced around in losses to Utah and the Clippers before eking out an overtime win over the Trail Blazers Thursday. Durant’s numbers are down through five games because opposing defenses are collapsing when he approaches the paint.

He is shooting just 37.4 percent from the field and 28.6 from the 3-point line through five games, an indication he is no longer a budding star, but a bona fide superstar.

“Kevin has faced external expectation for a long time, since he entered the league,’’ Presti said. “He understands that this is a tough league and there really is no path of least resistance. We understand we have a long way to go before we get to the place that we want to be. We have to continue to remain humble in our approach.’’

So there he is, backing down assistant coach Brian Keefe in the paint and spinning for a midrange jumper. It’s Saturday afternoon, the activities are boundless, but Durant would rather stick around the practice facility, trying to get better. It’s a never-ending quest.

“People are going to go at us. We noticed that early on,’’ he said. “We gotta keep pushing and fighting every day. Everybody works hard here. The reason I was here is I watch film of how I can get better as an individual. I watch film, that’s very important in my growth. Whether it’s 20 or 30 minutes, I just want to get something done. Just want to get better.’’

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