Around this time last summer, Kevin Durant was absolutely tearing it up for Team USA in a mindblowing, FIBA World Championship winning performance that marked the latest development in the lanky shooter's swift rise to superstardom. The former number two overall draft pick in 2007 (obligatory shout-out to Greg Oden here) had gone from good to great to elite in a matter of his three seasons and had just led the Association in scoring, games and minutes played, field goals made (and attempts) and free throws made (and attempts, at an otherworldly 10.2 per game). He also grabbed more than his fair of rebounds, blocked shots with his 7'5" wingspan, and drilled long three pointers with an effortless shooting stroke. The kid, barely old enough to drink and the youngest player ever to win a scoring title, seemed on the cusp of undeniable greatness, and his summer romp made you believe he could do whatever he wanted to on a basketball court. The scary part was (and sill is) that KD hasn't even hit his prime years yet; it's very possible that he hasn't reached his ceiling yet and could actually improve. Not surprisingly, the MVP runner-up was drafted first in the majority of fantasy basketball leagues last year ahead of halfway decent ballers such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard.
And while "Durantula" had another great season for the Thunder, he actually seemed to take a small step backwards. I wouldn't call it a "down year" because he still led the league in scoring and free throws made, but he regressed in several key areas including field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three point percentage, rebounds, and scoring. It could have just been a result of the natural fluctuation that occurs with sports statistics, but there could have been other factors that played roles in his slight decline. Perhaps he had grown content after inking a five year, $86 million contract extension the previous summer. Maybe he conceded more opportunities to talented teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden, especially once opposing defenders keyed in on him. Nothing was blatantly wrong with Durant's game; he was most likely a victim of setting the bar too high too soon. As a result his season's shine just lost some luster and got lost in the shuffle with all the hoopla over the Heat and Blake Griffin.
And as far as media attention goes, playing in the OKC certainly isn't a boon in that regard.
But earlier in the week we were reminded of his considerable skills when he dropped 66 points at Rucker Point in Harlem. There he was again, calmly pulling up and raining a barrage of three pointers that would have made Ray Allen and Reggie Miller proud. It was an unforgettable performance, regardless of the setting or competition, and it confirmed my belief that Kevin Durant is currently the best player in the NBA, last year's mildly disappointing season notwithstanding.
Some of you might be nodding in agreement, and I'm sure others will claim LeBron or Kobe to be superior. In my opinion, athletic freaks such as LeBron and Wade are overrated because they are more football players than basketball players. They're average shooters (at best) who succeed because they can put their heads down, barrel into the lane and draw a foul, dish to open shooters or posterize some poor, unsuspecting center. They're great for SportsCenter highlight reels and can make your jaw hit the floor on any given play, but at the same time you realize that they're dominating more on God-given natural athletic ability than basketball skills. When you clog the lane and turn them into jump shooters, they become far less effective basketball players because they force up bad shots and don't move well without the ball. As for Kobe, probably the best basketball player of the past decade, he still has something left in the tank but is clearly past his prime and should continue to decline with those creaky knees of his.
That leaves Durant, tall, skinny, and awkward, the antithesis of James and Wade. He's not exceptionally quick or graceful and can't jump out of the gym or stun you with flashy plays, yet he is smooth and can contribute in all facets of the game. He's unquestionably the best pure scorer in the game today, a much more potent offensive weapon than James or Wade, and at 22 he still has plenty of time to polish his game and improve with increased experience (he can start by crashing the boards a little more frequently).
Durant isn't the most exciting player out there right now, but he's still number one in my book.