Durant hoping practice makes perfect

The Baltimore Sun

P.K. Martin has seen thousands of basketball players come and go through the Washington suburbs.

But the youth league director couldn't believe the scene he witnessed one day. In an otherwise empty gym, an adolescent named Kevin Durant dribbled the length of the court to make a layup, then dribbled all the way back to make another. Up and down, up and down he went, tears dripping from his eyes.

What was the matter? Martin asked. Durant replied that his coach had told him to perform the full-court layup drill until 2 p.m. He had more than hour to go.

Martin told him to knock off and get lunch. Nope, Durant replied. He had to finish.

"Any other kid would have quit as soon as he saw his coach leave," Martin said. "But not Kevin. That's about the best way I can think of to explain him."

Martin and the other coaches hadn't thought much of Durant when they first saw him at age 9. But take that kind of determination and pair it with a body that never stopped stretching - while losing none of its coordination along the way - and you might have something. Yep, you might have the first freshman in NCAA history to sweep all the national Player of the Year awards and the next teenager to star in the NBA.

Those are the grand notions basketball experts toss about when they discuss Kevin Durant of Suitland, Md.

"I mean, this guy is a joke," Kansas coach Bill Self said after Durant scored 37 against his team in Sunday's Big 12 final. "You can plug him into any team in the country at any level and he can score. NBA, whatever, just plug him in and he can go get baskets."

Endless possibilities

When Texas tips off against New Mexico State in the NCAA tournament this evening, Durant will try to replicate the ascent of the last basketball prodigy to emerge from Maryland. Towson Catholic alum Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse in scoring and rebounding as a freshman in 2002-03 and then carried the third seed Orange to an unexpected national title. It was Anthony's only college season but one of the most memorable by an NCAA player in decades.

If anything, Durant, 18, has been better.

He scored 20 or more points in his first seven games and averaged almost 30 in Big 12 play. He's the only player who ranks in college basketball's top five in scoring and rebounding.

Texas coach Rick Barnes did nothing to play down expectations entering the season, calling Durant the most talented player he'd ever recruited. Yet the reality of the freshman's talent still exceeded any billing.

"Kevin, I think, has had the best season of anybody in college basketball," Barnes said. "When you have a guy as confident as he is, as willing to take so much on his shoulders, you have to feel pretty good about your chances."

Durant's game fires the imagination.

Is he Kevin Garnett with more shooting range and a scorer's mentality? A more athletic, unselfish Bob McAdoo? A bigger Tracy McGrady?

Durant maintains that he hasn't decided whether to leave school after this season, but already fans in cities with weak pro teams are salivating.

He will be the most exciting offensive prospect to enter the league in some time, said ESPN analyst David Thorpe, who serves as a performance coach for several NBA players. The Texas star's package of size, skill and attitude puts him ahead of previous phenoms such as Anthony and LeBron James.

"The thing I love most about him is his mind, that attitude of 'No matter where I am or who I'm going against, I'm going to kill you,'" Thorpe said. "Dwyane Wade thinks like that. That's how Michael Jordan thought."

Durant still isn't likely to be picked ahead of Ohio State 7-footer Greg Oden, according to NBA draft experts. But some believe he should be the first pick because he has a chance to become something unique.

"How can you pass on a guy who has the potential to lead the league in both scoring and rebounding?" Thorpe said.

Though he's soft-spoken and frequently says he has not grown up, Durant sees the possibility as well.

"I just want to be one of the best players to ever play the game," he's said in several interviews this year.

'Best I've ever seen'

In the midst of Durant's latest demolition of Kansas, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla noted that "good defense doesn't bother him." It's a trait that separates NBA stars from the basketball rabble. Like McGrady or Anthony, Durant can catch the ball anywhere within 25 feet of the basket and within seconds, invent a shot that seems as likely to go in as not.

A first-half sequence against the Jayhawks illustrated this. First, Durant used his pipe-cleaner arms to reach over two Kansas players for an offensive rebound. Without hesitating, he spun to the middle and floated in a 10-foot turnaround. On the next possession, super-athletic defender Julian Wright seemed stuck to his side. But Durant simply turned to the baseline, faded back and swished a 16-footer over Wright's outstretched hand. Finally, he drifted out to catch a pass two feet behind the NBA three-point line. Where most college big men would have passed off, he rose for a jumper that ripped the net.

No other player in college basketball could have combined those actions, and Durant has tossed off such beautiful stretches throughout the season.

He's not perfect. He doesn't always seem strong enough to fight for position near the basket. When he drives, he sometimes loses track of where he is on the court. As Kansas rallied on Sunday, Durant dropped one pass because he wasn't looking and caught another so close to the sideline that as soon as he turned, he stepped out of bounds. Moments later, he fired a shot off the side of the backboard because he'd dribbled into an impossible position.

But when you average 30.7 points in your first conference tournament, such flaws can be overlooked. After the tournament, Self, the Kansas coach, called Durant "the best I've ever seen."

Fraschilla refers to him as the urban Tiger Woods. By that, he means that the player's mother, Wanda Pratt, constructed a remarkable support network around her burgeoning star. From the time he was 9, Durant joined his local youth coach, Taras Brown, for two to three hours of practice after school and as many as eight hours a day during the summer. Brown wouldn't even let him play pickup - too many bad habits to be learned there. No, Durant had to be content with shooting, ball-handling and defensive drills. Some days, the coach made him run sprints up nearby Hunt's Hill.

A driving force

Durant wasn't an exceptional talent at first. "But my impression was that he was a sponge," Martin remembered. "He loved to work."

By age 11, Durant was on track to become a special player.

"The mental part of the game had become so easy for him," Martin said. "He was able to analyze it like a coach would. The game almost seemed to happen in slow motion for him."

With two excellent big men on his youth team, Durant played guard. The ball-handling and shooting skills he developed never left him as he sprouted into a 6-foot-9 forward with a 7-foot-6 wingspan.

If he ever seemed to slack, Pratt encouraged Brown and other coaches to drive him harder. Even now that he's a star, she seems resolutely unawed. "To me, he's still just Kevin," she told an ESPN reporter during Sunday's championship game.

"Kevin has a very strong mother, a loving mother," said Stu Vetter, who coached Durant as a senior at Rockville's Montrose Christian. "She's been the driving force behind him."

Like many modern high school stars, Durant bounced between schools, moving from Fort Washington's National Christian Academy as a sophomore to Virginia's vaunted Oak Hill Academy as a junior. His on-court progress continued but he needed to improve academically. So his parents brought him home to finish school at Montrose Christian, a perennial basketball power that already featured Maryland signee Greivis Vasquez.

Vetter said Durant did everything asked of him, often cramming extra shooting in before school so he could attend extra study sessions later in the day. On the court, the coach harped on shot selection and taught Durant to use his long frame to cover more ground defensively.

"I've had a lot of great players over the years and let me tell you, all great players don't work hard," Vetter said. "Kevin works hard."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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