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Learning on the job

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

— The indoctrination began when Kevin Durant's angelic-white Nikes hit Seattle pavement in midsummer.

He stepped out of a black sport utility vehicle, now far from his D.C. days. His new work site, Seattle's KeyArena, was about 3,000 miles away from Seat Pleasant Activity Center in Capitol Heights, where he learned the game.

Durant headed to an introductory news conference, where two men who would shape and reshape the first year of his NBA life flanked him. Sonics general manager Sam Presti sat to his left. On his right, new owner Clay Bennett. Everybody smiled.

Turns out the meet-and-greet is a prelude to a season of tumult and learning for the three, particularly Durant.

Bennett has received his schooling in Seattle's civic arena. The owner is absorbed in legal battles, a result of trying to relocate the franchise to his native Oklahoma City.

Presti, 31, the youngest general manager in the league, has stripped the roster twice, expelling the reliable and expensive in an attempt to better position the Sonics for the future.

Durant? He has learned the thrill of scoring 30 points in Madison Square Garden needs to be left behind in the next charter's jet wash. Same goes for the disappointment of a 3-for-17 night. The next game comes too quickly to glow or grumble in the aftermath.

He has learned his image isn't always his. Before the first trip home, his mother is going to call about a "Welcome home, Kevin Durant" party. It apparently is set for the Water St. club H20 in the District, but Durant doesn't plan or attend the soiree even though two pictures of him grace the flier, which says "Ladies are free all night."

He has discovered he has to flip the switch and go to a signing at Electronics Boutique even if he's tired.

He's often reminded how much he hates to lose. The Sonics start the season 0-8, then later lose 14 consecutive games, a franchise record. Denver will make the team a national head-shake by scoring 168 points against it. Seattle, which plays host to the Wizards tonight, has only 17 wins, the fewest in the Western Conference.

Regardless, Durant keeps grinding, building, growing and, believe it or not, smiling.

"It's the greatest job in the world, but a lot of young kids think it's all glamorous all the time," Durant says. "You have to be mentally tough, physically tough every night."

•••

Durant is averaging 19.6, a result of shooting 42.1 percent from the field. He has registered a paltry 28.5 percent from behind the 3-point line. He has gone scoreless in a half, had eight turnovers a game and made poor late-game decisions. Postgame, he often laments missing shots he says he normally makes.

In fairness, it's not a surprise. LeBron James averaged 20.9 points his rookie year, shooting 41.7 percent from the field. In his second season, James' percentage rose to 47.2. Cleveland's four other starters averaged double figures to aid James in his rookie season. Durant has one teammate averaging 10 points — former Maryland star Chris Wilcox at 13.4.

"When you first come on to a team, especially when you are the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, you're going to go to a team that isn't going to be that good in the beginning," James says. "It's not going to go the way you want it to every night. Some nights you know you can play better."

News of Durant's struggles in the bench press in predraft workouts led to T-shirts picturing a barbell over the phrase, "I can bench more than Kevin Durant." His slender physique continues to be a target.

The Celtics immediately put Paul Pierce just off the block against Durant during their Seattle visit, hoping the square-shouldered All-Star could use his body to create space. The Lakers often dropped Kobe Bryant into the same place, enabling him to operate with Durant on his back.

Defensively, Bryant looked to push around the spindly rookie.

"Try to body him as much as possible," Bryant says. "With scorers, you just don't want them to get too comfortable. You don't want them to get in a rhythm. Once they get in a rhythm, you have a problem out there."

Durant has played the Lakers four times, getting trounced by Bryant when they were matched head-to-head. Durant scored 25 points on 10-for-19 shooting in the first meeting, but many came in the fourth quarter after the outcome had been decided. Bryant squelched Durant's offense in the second meeting, limiting the rookie to a 6-for-26 shooting performance, and his game-winning attempt was off the mark.

Durant finished 4-for-13 in the third game. The league's youngest player shot 8-for-15 in the final game, but he faced defensively disinterested Vladimir Radmanovic instead of Bryant.

Nonetheless, Bryant and Lakers coach Phil Jackson came away impressed.

"With all the noise he's handled the situation very well," Bryant says. "People expect him to come in and average 29, 30 points. ... He just needs to continue to grow at his own pace."

Says Jackson: "We're going to see a big change in Kevin the next 10 years. What we're seeing now is a 6-10, lanky kid that's learning how to play the game."

•••

A Niketown store with a window filled by a Durant poster sits in the middle of Seattle's shopping district. Just beyond the double-doors are KD T-shirts. Durant's signature shoe sits shelved above all other options. Back in the District, a friend working at Downtown Locker Room called him when his shoes first arrived.

"He's like, 'They brought your shoes in, and I sold them to a couple people,' " Durant says. " 'People really bought them.' "

With shoe contracts come exposure and cash. That's how a potential welcome home party results from a misunderstanding between the rookie and a promoter pal. It was never a logical fit considering Durant's laid-back personality and reluctance to celebrate draft night and his first game with a public scene, though offers were made.

"A lot of my friends were texting and calling me about my party," Durant says. "I was like 'huh?' I'm not a big, flashy guy. I don't really do that stuff."

He's not a big spender, either.

Durant says he would save five or 10 bucks for the end of the week last season at Texas. Now he has a Nike shoe deal and his NBA salary, just more than $4 million this season, making him a multimillionaire.

Durant's mother, Wanda Pratt, controls the majority of his finances. The NBA sent George Gervin, the player many compared Durant to, to mentor him and former Georgetown star and teammate Jeff Green. Following a turbulent and violent summer for pro athletes, the NBA started the mentoring program.

"If you've got any sense at all, you'll look at the situation and see that a lot of our kids just need some direction," Gervin says. "You're thrust in this situation as an athlete and you really never had nothing in your life, then all of a sudden you have something. You just need some guidance. Yeah, they make a lot of money, but it ain't how much money you make, it's how much you keep."

As a 23-year-old heading toward being a billionaire, James, whom Durant refers to as a "big brother" and "a different dude," has a full understanding of cash control. He knows in the end generations of your family should be set, though, for many, it does not turn out that way.

"The first thing we do is we want to spend, spend, spend," James says. "We always had been in a situation where we couldn't spend, spend, spend when we were younger. I think right at the beginning, you should splurge, you should just go out and buy your mom something, buy your friends things, but it gets to a point where you have to be smart about things and know basketball doesn't last forever."

•••

Despite the squalls around him — the possible relocation of the organization, multiple roster changes — Durant likely will earn rookie of the year honors. His average of 19.6 points leads a rookie class with only three double-figure scorers. He also has blocked one less shot than Atlanta strongman Al Horford, the other prime candidate for the rookie of the year award.

Criticism has burgeoned this month even though Durant's shooting efficiency has risen. He has made a substantial reduction in 3-point attempts, putting up only eight in 11 games in this month after taking 70 in 16 games in November. His shooting percentage in March spiked to 52 percent. At the same time, a fresh batch of teammates and shooting less has caused his turnovers to surge. He's averaging 3.9 this month.

Simply put, he's learning on the fly.

"It's easy to forget that an 82-game season is a process, and along the way there's going to be peaks and valleys," Presti says. "I think over time we are starting to see his understanding translate onto the floor. His competitiveness and willingness to be coached throughout the year is nothing short of remarkable."

Even a woeful record and historic losses haven't dampened Durant's exuberance. Perhaps the best example of that came in a game he didn't play in. Though out with a sprained left index finger, Durant joined the huddle during a second-half timeout. The standing circle consisted of the coach, the five players on the floor and this focused guy in a suit.

For all the hype, he considers himself an average guy from the District finding his way at work. Just like those other 6-foot-10, 19-year-old millionaires everyone knows.

"It's still kind of weird to see people ask me for autographs or ask to take pictures with me. I think I'm just a regular guy," Durant says. "I walk around the mall by myself. You know, I just enjoy being a regular person. That's how I think I am, so it's no different to me."