Sitting in the visitors’ locker room Monday night at the Verizon Center, Kevin Durant strapped on his ankle braces and prepared to do business. Dropping 32 points in three quarters against the Wizards wouldn’t be personal. He’s a big fan of his hometown team and predicted brighter days ahead.
“I’ve been through what they’re going through,” said Durant, who endured a 20-62 campaign as a rookie in 2007-08. “It only takes one or two guys to come in and switch the mindset. The Wizards have young guys who want to win and play the right way. It’s just a matter of getting accustomed to the league. With a player like John Wall to have your franchise centered around, that’s a great asset.”
The Wizards need four more victories to reach 20 for the season, which isn’t a given at the current rate. Washington has lost 20 of its last 23 games and is tied with Sacramento for the NBA’s second-worst record. Monday’s 116-89 thrashing was particularly disheartening, as the Wizards trailed Oklahoma City by 25 points entering the fourth quarter.
“It’s tough to look at,” Washington coach Flip Saunders admitted afterward. “It’s tough to coach. I thought there’d be some growing pains, but I hoped there wouldn’t be as many.”
The pain will be worthwhile if the Wizards can mimic Oklahoma City. The franchise went from 20 wins (the final season in Seattle) to 23 (in Russell Westbrook’s rookie year) to an eye-opening 50 last season, and extended the Los Angeles Lakers to Game 7 in a first-round playoff series.
The Thunder’s rapid ascent wasn’t foreseen by many, but anyone can point to the launch point: drafting Durant with the No. 2 overall pick and taking Jeff Green at No. 5. Westbrook and Serge Ibaka were selected the following season – with the Nos. 4 and 24 picks, respectively – and a year later, James Harden came aboard as the No. 3 overall pick.
All five of those players are integral factors in Oklahoma City’s success today (Green was traded last month for center Kendrick Perkins). But the cornerstone is Durant, who signed a five-year extension last summer to keep him in Oklahoma City through the 2015-16 season. The NBA’s defending scoring champion, he thrived under the weight that rests on Wall.
“We put (Durant) in some tough positions his first couple of years,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He wasn’t ready to be the leader on the team, but no first- or second-year player is ready. Magic Johnson is the only time I can remember a player leading as a rookie. But Kevin has developed those skills. He leads by his work and his effort every day. He’s not a vocal guy, but when he talks it makes sense because he back it up with his effort.”
Durant said he did it and so can Wall. “He’s a point guard, too, so he knows what it takes to be a leader,” Durant said. “He’s excited. I talked to him a couple of times and told him to keep his head up and keep pushing these guys to have a winning mentality. He’s taken that responsibility here and I’m sure he’s doing to do very well.”
As bad as the season has been, with losses as ugly as imaginable, Wall continues to play hard and remain positive. He believes management can emulate Oklahoma City’s model and put the team in a similar position quickly.
“I think they’re doing a great job of getting talent, getting the right people around us,” Wall said. “We know it’s rebuilding process and there’s going to be ups and downs. I hoped this year was going to be be better, but it’s going tough right now. All we can do is try to finish strong. I looked at how a lot of people did their first year. Kevin Durant and them got better and now they’re a playoff team. Hopefully we can come out the same way or be even better.”
If no one else believes, Durant does, predicting that free agents will find the Wizards attractive.
“Why wouldn’t they choose here?” he said. “Washington, D.C. is one of the best cities in the world. It has a great fan base and players who want to win. People are going to want to play with John Wall. There’s an owner that’s very dedicated to the team. I’m sure you’re going to start to see guys come here.
“It’s just a matter of time and I’m pulling for the hometown team.”
Then he went out and dropped 32 points in three quarters.