Catching Up With Kevin Durant w/Sonics Side Dishes
For the second time in the past two years, Kevin Durant stepped into the Verizon Center hoping that the Washington Wizards, his hometown team, would lose. He didn't have much luck on Sunday, as the rookie and his Seattle SuperSonics were on the receiving end of a 22-point beatdown.
But back in April 2006, when Durant was a high school senior and a huge LeBron James fan, he was almost ready to leave his seat and rush the court to celebrate after Cleveland guard Damon Jones's long jumper ended the Wizards' season in the first round of the playoffs. "I was a Wizards fan, Bullets fan, growing up," Durant said, "but I wanted LeBron to win that one."
On Tuesday, Durant will be rooting against LeBron and the Cavaliers, as he will face his one-time idol for the first time in Cleveland. Durant will also be looking to rebound from a less-than-heroic return to the D.C. area, where he scored as many points as his age (19), and shot just 7-for-21 from the field. He has already learned that it does no good to dwell on losses for too long in this league. "It was a tough night, but you got to focus on the next game," he said.
Durant has had the rookie of the year award wrapped up ever since Greg Oden had microfracture surgery prior to this season. Although Durant wishes that Oden was playing a few miles down I-5 in Portland this season, the absence of the No. 1 pick has given Durant the chance to establish his own identity in the league.
"Without him here, it's kind of different," Durant said on Sunday before playing his first professional game in front his hometown fans. "Going through the college season, the draft process, it was always me and Greg Oden. 'Who's going to be No. 1?' Or 'Who's better?' Or whatever. You don't hear that now. We got a little monkey off our back a little bit with them always comparing us, trying to put us against each other."
Despite being the focus of opposing teams' defenses all season, Durant is averaging 19.9 points - more than double the scoring output of every rookie except Milwaukee's Yi Jianlian. "When I came in, I had a mind set that I'm going to contribute to the team right away. That's what I want to do," Durant said. "I try to tell myself not to get down on myself and if I have a bad game, not to blame it on being a rookie. I just try to go out and play my hardest and have fun."
The No. 2 pick from last summer's draft is still the width of a No. 2 pencil but he has grown tremendously since he made his NBA debut on Oct. 31. It may not have looked like it on Sunday as Durant was clanking three-pointers or missing bunnies near the basket. But trust me, Durant has started to figure that being open doesn't always mean that he should shoot, and that he doesn't have to camp out on the perimeter no matter how smooth his jump shot looks.
In the seven games prior to Sunday, Durant had made 47 percent (50-for-106) of his shots. Through his first 24 games, Durant had shot 39.4 percent (168 of 424) from the field and developed a reputation as an undisciplined chucker. That is changing.
"I think I'm a smarter player," he said. "From the first game to now, I'm being more patient on the floor. I'm taking better shots. When I first started, I was just shooting the ball. The game is slowing down for me now. I'm starting to notice how I can score and where I can score."
Sonics Coach P.J. Carlesimo, who decided to play the 6-10 wunderkind at shooting guard, said this was part of the plan: Give Durant a long leash and hope he figures it out. "For Kevin, he's been a volume shooter and a big-time scorer throughout his career. He's had the green light early," Carlesimo said. "We've brought it back some. For somebody who's had it like that, we needed to err on him being aggressive and overly aggressive and maybe taking too many shots that we don't want him to take [in the future]. But he's learning."
Durant has had a rough introduction to the league, as Seattle lost its first eight games of the season. The Sonics won the next two games - including Durant hitting his first game-winning, buzzer-beater on the road in Atlanta - only to lose the next six. But after that 2-14 start, the Sonics have gone 7-10. "We're not having the best season, but we're playing hard and getting better evey night," Durant said. "Since we lost those [eight] games in a row, we've done a good job of playing harder and pulling out some of those games. Things come with time, so we'll be all right."
The situation in Seattle may look bleak now - and I'm not talking about the Sonics' possible relocation to Oklahoma City, only the team's spot in the Western Conference standings - but the foundation is being set for this team to be really good down the road. With Durant and Jeff Green in the fold, those are great building blocks.
But Sam Presti, the league's youngest general manager, made one of the most underrated moves of the offseason when he completed a sign-and-trade that sent Rashard Lewis to Orlando for a conditional second-round pick and a salary cap exception worth $9 million. That might not sound like much, but Presti knew that the Phoenix Suns were looking to cut salary, so he used about $8 million of that trade exception to acquire Kurt Thomas and first round picks in 2008 and 2010.
Think about that. The Sonics used Lewis - a player they had no intention to sign for the ridiculous amount of money Orlando gave him - to get two first round picks, a second round pick, Thomas and about $1 million in a trade exception that could possibly help another team get under the cap. Thomas has been a great addition to the Sonics, providing a veteran mentor for the young team. He is averaging 9.8 rebounds to help Seattle become the best rebounding team in the NBA.
But the story may not end there. The Sonics don't have any intention of trading Thomas right now. They are content with having the 13-year veteran finish out the season in Seattle, but Thomas could easily be flipped into more assets near the trade deadline. Think any playoff contenders could use a rugged rebounder and defender?
Thomas has had a great attitude about going from a championship contender to a rebuilding situation. He said he doesn't know if he will finish the season in Seattle but hasn't given it much thought. "You never know what the Sonics are looking to do. I'm a free agent at the end of this season, but if the opportunity is there, I'll make the best of it," Thomas said. "You play to get into the postseason, but changes happen. You just keep your head up and play through it."
At 35, Thomas is one of the older players in the league, but doesn't plan on putting away the high tops after this season or next. "I want to play 15 years," he said.
The Good Life
Kanye West doesn't have anything on Sonics reserve point guard Delonte West. To Kanye, the good life feels like N.Y., Summertime Chi, ahh. To Delonte, it feels like sleeping on a little twin bed in his mother's basement in Brandywine.
I don't know if most people know this or not, but Delonte West is one of the funniest dudes in the NBA. I don't think he intends on most of his stuff being funny, but I laughed during half of my conversations with him on Sunday.
Delonte said he stayed at home so that he could spend some time with his mother and his brother and his brother's family. But he added that the home is the hang out spot for family and friends, so there are rarely fewer than 15 people at the house most of the time. But being part of the excitement meant that West had to lay his head on the same twin bed he grew up sleeping in. "Don't nothing change here. Same room. Same 19-inch TV," said West, adding that his television didn't even have cable.
But he's 6-3, wasn't that twin bed a little small? "I'm very use to sleeping in tight quarters."
But why not sleep in a nice hotel and visit the fam for a few hours? "You always have ways of keeping yourself humble."
I asked Delonte how he felt about seeing his former team - Boston - get off to one of the best starts in NBA history. "Well, my former teammates, most of them are in Minnesota. Maybe one, two teammates is in Boston," West said, sort of correcting me. "But I'm happy for the organization. Being a part of the city for three years, knowing how much they embrace their sports."
West spent three seasons in Boston, going from winning 45 games as a rookie, to 33 down to 24 before he got traded on draft night, along with Jeff Green and Wally Szczerbiak, for Ray Allen. But things have changed in that town. "There is something special in the water up there in Boston. With the Red Sox, Patriots and the Celtics. The diehard Boston fans deserve to see those guys get the team back to perform where they are mentioned in the same sentences with the McHales and the Birds and guys of that nature, with so much rich tradition. But right now, I'm trying to get the PG Sonics back in effect in the Western Conference."
West said he had some special plans for this last night in Washington on Sunday. "I'm going to take a drive around the Beltway, get off on every exit, drive by and wave. Wave at everybody and keep on going," West said.
I'm sure it was just talk, but you never know with Delonte.
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