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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Forward Thinking: Position Switch Boosts Durant's Game

Literally from day one, I insisted that Kevin Durant should be used at small forward, not shooting guard. It did not surprise me that the first move Scott Brooks made after replacing P.J. Carlesimo as Oklahoma City's Coach was to switch Durant from shooting guard back to his natural position--and it definitely has not surprised me that Durant's game took off as soon as he was placed back in his comfort zone.

Here is an examination of what Durant's career arc tells us not only about him but also about the NBA game in general:


Kevin Durant is having an excellent second season, averaging 26.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 2.9 apg while shooting .487 from the field and ranking 10th in the NBA with a .436 three-point field goal percentage. He looks like a completely different player than he did during his rookie season.

There are two reasons why he has improved so much: (1) Scott Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo as Oklahoma City's coach early in the season and Brooks' first move was to immediately switch Durant back to his natural small forward position instead of deploying Durant at shooting guard; (2) Durant did not listen to all of the overheated praise showered on him before he even played one regular season game but instead he put in the necessary work during last offseason to address his skill set weaknesses relative to playing at the NBA level.

In his one and only collegiate season at the University of Texas, Durant averaged 25.8 ppg and 11.1 rpg, earning recognition as the consensus Player of the Year. Although he had a slender build and a nice outside shooting touch, Durant had never played guard, but after Durant was drafted by Seattle, Carlesimo switched him to shooting guard. Adjusting to the NBA is tough enough for a rookie anyway--let alone a 19-year old--so it made no sense to take Durant out of his comfort zone, as I wrote at that time:

Maybe some people have visions of Durant being the 21st century version of George Gervin, a slender forward who moved to guard early in his pro career and won four scoring titles -- but there are some important differences to consider between Gervin and Durant. Gervin started his career at his natural position of forward and proved that he could rebound, draw fouls and even block shots, averaging 8.4 rpg, 6.3 FTA/g and 1.6 bpg in his first full ABA season (Gervin played just 30 games as a rookie after the Virginia Squires discovered him in the middle of the season while he was playing in the minor league Eastern Basketball Association).

San Antonio Spurs Coach Bob Bass moved Gervin to guard late in Gervin's third season, after Gervin had already established himself as an All-Star forward...Durant clearly needs to put on some weight but that will be true regardless of which position he plays. I think that he and Seattle would be better served if he takes his lumps at his natural small forward position where he will at least be in the comfort zone of playing in areas of the court that are familiar to him.

Bill Simmons, Rick Kamla and others breathlessly raved about Durant before he had even played in one regular season game, projecting that he would be an instant star, but after watching Durant struggle during the 2007 summer league I cautioned, "He may very well score 20-plus ppg out of necessity because Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are gone but he will likely have to do it on a high volume of shots with a low degree of accuracy." I also wrote, "If all Durant hears is how great he is going to be then what incentive is he going to have to work on his game?"

I suggested that Durant needed to work on his rebounding, passing, ballhandling and three-point shooting and that he would be much better suited to playing his natural position of forward as opposed to switching to guard.

Durant's rookie-year performance as a shooting guard confirmed that my initial assessments had been correct: he averaged 20.3 ppg while shooting .430 from the field and just .288 from three point range. He did not rebound or pass particularly well--averaging 4.4 rpg and 2.4 apg--and he really struggled on defense.

Durant scored fewer than 20 points in six of his first 13 games this season. He shot .429 or worse from the field in seven of those 13 games. Then, Oklahoma City fired Carlesimo and replaced him with Brooks, who immediately shifted Durant back to forward.

In his first 12 games after returning to his natural position, Durant averaged 24.7 ppg and 6.3 rpg while shooting .466 from the field and .511 from three point range, a marked across the board improvement from his rookie numbers. Durant scored fewer than 20 points in only three of those games and only shot worse than .429 from the field four times.

He also had 10 or more rebounds in a game three times in those 12 games after reaching that level only once in his rookie season. Durant averaged 25.1 ppg and 7.7 rpg in December, 27.8 ppg and 8.8 rpg in January and 30.6 ppg and 6.3 rpg in February. His field-goal percentage in those months climbed from .472 to .494 to .538 and his three point field goal percentage went from .419 to .396 to .514.

I spoke with Durant just prior to his second game at small forward and he told me, "I hadn't played guard until my rookie year; that is the only year I played guard in my entire life...Playing against the smaller guys, guarding them on defense, and then having little guys who could reach up under me and guard me--it was an adjustment. It was something I had to go through but I'm glad I'm at my natural position now."

I also asked Durant what parts of his game he had worked on during the offseason and he replied, "Just everything--getting stronger, my post-up game, my ballhandling. Everything. I think that I did a good job on working on that and I just have to continue to work to become better."

I concluded that article with these hopeful words:

Durant is an earnest, soft spoken and likable person and I can honestly say that I hope he does succeed in becoming a great player--but with his body type and skill set I think that he has his work cut out for him to become as great as some people projected. Jeff Van Gundy recently called Durant a disappointment but in my opinion that says more about overheated expectations than it does about what should realistically have been expected of Durant by this stage. Moving Durant to small forward is a big step in the right direction that I predict will pay noticeable dividends, possibly as soon as the end of this season.

Durant's brief career arc instructively illustrates some important things to understand about the NBA game:

* Contrary to what some talking/screaming heads insist, few players are truly "superstars" or "phenomenons" right after they enter the league.

* Durant's path toward becoming an excellent NBA player was not something that was preordained or destined; he made it happen by continuing to work on the very skill set weaknesses that most commentators ignored during the 2007 summer league.

* In order for any player to reach his full potential, he needs to have the right coach and the right teammates around him; if Carlesimo were still coaching Oklahoma City and playing Durant at shooting guard then most likely Van Gundy--and many others--would be continuing to express "disappointment" about Durant's game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 AM

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At Thursday, March 05, 2009 8:37:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Looking at how much Durant has improved this season, I have no doubt that he has the natural ability, work ethic, and killer instinct to be a top 5 player.

Imagine Portland with a Big 3 of Durant, Roy, and Aldridge. For their sake I hope Oden shakes off his injuries and at least develops into a dominant rebounder and interior defender, or that pick could come back to haunt them over the next decade. I really like the Durant-Green-Westbrook nucleus in OKC and the job Sam Presti is doing (so far) rebuilding that franchise. Portland-OKC could become a major division rivalry down the road.

 
At Friday, March 06, 2009 5:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

He still has to improve a lot to be a top five player, even though he is already a top five scorer.

Oden's skill set fits in with what Portland needs but that of course won't matter if he is never healthy enough to stay on the court for long.

Durant, Roy and Aldridge would be awesome offensively but to win a championship that trio would need to be surrounded by some defensive help and some solid big men.

Presti had some prize draft picks the past two years but, to his credit, he has made the most out of them.

 

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