Kevin Durant has started off the 2011-2012 season in almost flawless fashion. When the Thunder improved to 4-0 (despite Russell Westbrook’s struggles) after KD’s game-winner against Dallas, he also joined elite company by becoming one of four players in the past 30 years to score 30+ points in each of his team’s first four games. Although it’s early, something feels different about Durant. In each of the past two seasons, Durant was a superstar with back-to-pack scoring crowns, but he was never truly in the discussion for “best player in the game.” Right now, though, Kevin Durant is a darned near perfect basketball player. He’s sporting improved ball-handling and, after two seasons as an average three-point shooter, he is back to his dead-eye ways. Durant shows no signs of rust from the long summer and shortened training camp; as he heads into a season being a favorite for MVP and Best in the West, I thought I’d look at how Durant came to be where he is now.
After his Rookie of the Year campaign, where he lead all rookies in scoring, the main knock on Durant was that he didn’t get his rookie-leading 20.3 point per game in an efficient manner (43 FG%, 28.8 3pt%). It’s hard to remember Durant being a poor shooter and inefficient scorer, but it was a reality at the time. Durant quelled doubters after his second season (he shot 47.6 FG%, 42.2 3pt%), but critics were keen to point out that, by the numbers, Durant wasn’t actually helping his team win. Durant didn’t sweat it (maybe he did a little), because midway through his third season, it was clear that KD35 was a superstar that helped his team a lot. Statistically speaking, his third season was actually much better than his fourth season (last season). In 2008-09, Durant had 16.1 Win Shares (.238 ws/48) and a 26.2 PER; in 2010-11, Durant had 12.0 Win Shares (.189 ws/48) and a 23.6 PER. Although his numbers regressed in 2010-11, Durant answered questions about his ability to lead in the playoffs after his Thunder went deep into the postseason, only losing in the WCF to the eventual-champion Mavs.
Going into this season, analysts still had ideas about how Durant could improve. After being pushed off the ball and out of his comfort zone in the playoffs, critics pointed to Durant’s skinny-frame (something many have given up on, I think) and the relative trend of Durant’s teammates setting him up rather than Durant creating for himself and others. This latter point has to do with Durant’s average court vision, but above all else, a surprisingly pedestrian ball-handling ability for the deadliest of perimeter scoring assassins.
Whether or not Durant listened to the criticism, Durant is an improved player so far in the 2011-12 season. How’d he do it this time? Durant is a hoops-addict and is always looking to add to his game, traits that compelled him to play lots of pro-am games this summer (most notably representing Washington DC’s Goodman League). Although I have no doubt Durant coupled serious practice along with the fun-and-games that characterize exhibition games, I seriously think that the isolation, strut-your-stuff style of play in these games gave Durant the opportunity to work on some of his weaknesses.
This is critical and might not have happened without the lockout. Relative to summer exhibition games, other types of basketball either lack the live-game and audience pressure (e.g. practices, scrimmages) or lack the freedom that allows a player to barrage defenders with crossovers and 30-footers (e.g. training camp, preseason games). But in tune with the culture of exhibition play, Durant used his “offensive liberties” to practice his weaknesses in excess in front of raucous, basketball-deprived audiences and allowed Durant to arrive where he is today.
At the Melo League-Goodman League game in which LeBron and Durant went toe to toe, Durant’s subtle changes were on display.
Beckly Mason, TrueHoop contributor and founder of HoopSpeak, had this to say after the Melo-Goodman game:
“Durant’s handle has improved dramatically this summer. He seems much more confident dribbling through traffic in the open court and using his crossover and hesitation moves, often one after the other, to reach the rim…He seems more comfortable using the move to both step back and explode toward the basket. His rhythmic crossover routine repeatedly befuddled his defender for the night, LeBron, and with his step-back as an ever-present counter-threat, Durant was able to get to the rim with surprising ease.”
Durant’s confidence/ability improved not only for his ball-handling, but also for his three-ball. This fact is evident in the above video, and even more so in this one. Shots well-beyond the arc don’t count for more than three points, but like a showy crossover, draining 35-footers in front of a goading crowd certainly adds incentive to practice such a skill. This style of basketball can perpetuate bad habits such as selfishness, poor shot selection, and lazy defense. But for Durant, this style of play may have been just what he needed to work on his weaknesses. Harkening back to Durant’s buzzer-beating, game-winning fade-away three-pointer, I’d argue that every ridiculously far-out three he took in those sold-out exhibitions helped him sink that three-pointer against Dallas. Likewise, every cross-over in those battles for bravado he engaged in will make his hands that much stickier, his reflexes that much sharper, and his mind that much more creative when it’s time to break down his defender against a waning shot-clock.
For basketball purists, those summer games weren’t examples of real basketball. But for the ultimate basketball-junkie of them all, KD35, basketball never stops.
Do you see anything different about Durant’s game? How did you feel about “lock-out” basketball? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.