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NBA Puts Pressure on Thunder's Kevin Durant

By RJ Young

It’s not a secret anymore. In truth, it never was to begin with. At just 21-years-old, Kevin Durant has become the focal point of NBA fans around the world.

From the time he stepped on the court at Montrose Christian Academy with that lanky 185-pound frame, still growing into a body that seemingly was made to play out on the wing we’ve known about Durant.

As a high school senior he was named a McDonald’s All-American and won MVP honors at the high school showcase event. We all knew how good Durant was when he committed to the University of Texas to play with the likes of D.J. Augustin, T.J. Ford and newly acquired Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, Royal Ivey. If we didn’t know then, Durant’s 25.8 points per game average and shooting at a 40 percent clip from three-point range in his only season as a Longhorn put us all on red alert.

It came as no surprise in 2007 when he declared for the 2007 NBA draft. We all knew he was going to go high. I mean, how many 6’10 natural scoring swingmen can you think of that have a 7’4 wingspan, and the ability to get his shot anywhere on the court whenever he wants it? Yeah, I can only think of one, too.

But, the former number two overall pick in the draft is not just equipped with brilliant athleticism and a genius level basketball IQ. He’s also the humble, hardworking team players and coaches dream about playing with. Now, the team he was left off in 2008 is looking to him to lead in 2010. And you know what? He hasn’t held a grudge or even grown a big head about it.

Durant is a man so self-conscious about how he’s perceived in the eyes of the public that while other NBA superstars announced the end of their free agency by press conferences and other more visible media outlets, he quietly announced his contract extension with the Thunder via his Twitter account. That’s funny considering that social mediums are designed to be self-promotional tools and Durant, in his inherent humility, found away to use it to be gracious, thoughtful and thankful.

Durant recently told Dime Magazine, “It’s a dream come true for me to be a part of something like this, and I’m so blessed and I’ve just got to continue to keep working.”

He went on to say “I’d rather win a gold medal than an NBA Championship.”

You can’t help but love a guy like that.

Team USA will be competing in the World Basketball Festival later this month and unlike some USA Basketball teams where the problem has been figuring out who among the many go-to guys on the team will be the go-to guy on Team USA, Kevin Durant has been handed the job and basically told “You’re it, kid,” by the players and coaching staff. But, there’s one problem with this: Durant may be just too nice a guy.

In fact, USA Basketball and Duke University head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, believes Durant may be too unselfish.

“They look to him all the time,” Krzyzewski told ESPN after Friday’s practice at the New York Knicks’ training facility. “They’re OK with Kevin shooting. If he misses, they want him to shoot again. They know. They’ve seen it.”

And he’s not alone, teammates have voiced their opinions about Durant’s affinity for passing up shots so he can make the extra pass and they are bewildered by it.

Chauncey Billups also told he wants to see Durant be the team’s catalyst on the court. “He’s our guy,” Billups said.

“He’s the go-to guy,” Billups admitted. “He’s the guy who for us is going to be the scorer and do all the things that Kobe (Bryant) and LeBron (James) did on the Olympic team.”

This is probably the first time USA Basketball has had this sort of “problem” to deal with at any level. USA Basketball is another way of saying a player has truly arrived. By the time one of them dons that jersey, whether it be playing on U-16s team or on this senior team headed to Turkey, they’ve earned the respect and admiration of the basketball community by the time they get there. It’s no fluke to hoop for Team USA so naturally everyone thinks they should be the player the team builds its game strategy around.

The fact that a team of NBA All-Star caliber players and coaches have without question said “As Durant goes, so goes the team” speaks Encyclopedia Britannica-sized volumes about his game, work ethic, attitude and team-leading abilities. This can only mean good things for Team USA who will likely be just as united in their play as the Dream Team that won gold 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and the Redeem Team that won gold at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

The downside of this – if there truly is a downside – is the Thunder are no longer going to catch any team off guard and teams will consistently throw their best defender at Durant and try to trap him in double-teams whenever possible.

Thunder teammate and starting point guard, Russell Westbrook, is a shoe-in to represent USA at the FIBA World Championships this month and as such will have an opportunity to show the world the wealth of talent that Sam Presti and Scott Brooks have assembled in the heartland.

Westbrook and Jeff Green have turned into solid second and third scoring threats for the Thunder in the past two years while growing alongside Durant in Oklahoma City. All three have seen time at Team USA’s training camp this summer (Green was the second to last cut made to help trim the final roster number to 12) and the awesome display of chemistry between the trio will bode well for Team USA and better for the Thunder.

Each second the Thunder teammates are on the floor together in Turkey is a win for the Thunder. But, the more time they see together on the world’s biggest basketball stage, the more looks they will draw from teams and media around the league.

The New York Times recently published a piece praising Durant as the reluctant leader of Team USA and he has been the subject of numerous blogs, magazines, newspapers, TV and radio shows in what most have called the most eventful offseason in NBA history.

According to the current NBA TV schedule the Thunder will play a total of 23 times on national television during the 2010-2011 season. That figure is only surpassed by the Boston Celtics with 32 appearances, the Miami Heat with 29 appearances, and the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers with 26 appearances each.

An NBA panel assembled by ESPN has predicted Kevin Durant will be the NBA league MVP in 2011 with a jaw dropping 41 of 93 votes. Kobe Bryant was closes to Durant in the voting with 23 votes and LeBron James, the league’s reigning MVP, only received a mere 15 votes.

That same ESPN panel has predicted the Thunder to win 52 games next season (two more than last season) and finish second to the defending champion LA Lakers, just ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference.

The challenge for the Thunder organization in upcoming season will be dealing with the pressure of being everyone’s new favorite other team to root for. Admittedly it’s a hard team not to like them. Presti has shown wisdom beyond his 34 years since taking over as general manager for the Thunder in 2007 and the players have all shown admirable character traits while rooting themselves in the community.

A year and a half ago this very same Thunder team had a scarlet-colored 1-16 record pinned to its chest. That was then. In 2009-2010 the Thunder played inspired basketball, posted the first 50-win season in franchise history and took the eventual NBA champion Lakers to the limit in six of a possible seven games. Now that they have made one of the most miraculous season turnarounds in NBA history, it’s no longer a question of whether they can win.

For the first time ever, the Thunder are expected to win.


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