- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2017

Editor’s note: Todd Dybas, now a staff writer with The Washington Times, filled a freelance assignment for the paper back when Kevin Durant was a rookie in Seattle. The comments in the story, which is below and ran in the spring of 2008, predicted much of what was to come for Durant, a District native who is in town Tuesday night with the Golden State Warriors to face the Washington Wizards.


SEATTLE — The indoctrination began when Kevin Durant’s angelic-white Nikes hit Seattle pavement in mid-summer.

He stepped out of a black SUV, now far from his D.C. days. The Seat Pleasant Activity Center, where he learned the game, a touch under 3,000 miles away from his new work site, Seattle’s KeyArena.

Durant was heading to an introductory press conference where he would be flanked by two men who would shape, then reshape, the first year of his NBA life. Sonics general manager Sam Presti sat to his left. On his right, new owner Clay Bennett. Everybody smiled.

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

Bennett is getting 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, twice stripped the roster, expelling the reliable and expensive in an attempt to better position the Sonics for the future.

Durant? He’s learning 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 be glowing or grumbling in the aftermath.

He’s learning his image isn’t always his. Before the first trip home, mom’s going to call about a “Welcome home Kevin Durant” party. It was to take place at the Water Street club H20, but Durant didn’t plan it or attend though two pictures of him grace the soiree’s flier above red letters stating “Ladies are free all night.”

He’s finding out you have to flip the switch and go to a signing at Electronics Boutique whether or not you’re tired.

He’s often reminded how much he hates to lose. After starting the season 0-8, the Sonics will later lose 14 consecutive games, a franchise record. Denver will make the club a national head shake by scoring 168 points against it. Seattle has only 15 wins, the lowest total 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 said. “You have to be mentally tough, physically tough every night.”

***

Durant is averaging 19.4 points a game, a result of shooting 41.8 percent from the field. He’s registered a paltry 28.3 percent from behind the 3-point line. He’s gone scoreless in a half. Turned it over eight times in one game. 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 48. Aiding James the first year were the four other Cleveland starters who averaged double figures. Durant has one teammate cracking the 10-point barrier, and that’s former Maryland star Chris Wilcox who averages 13.4 points per game.

“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 said. “It’s not going to go the way you want it to every night. Some nights you know you can play better.”

Hubbub from pre-draft workouts about Durant’s struggle in the bench press 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 said of his defensive strategy. “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 faced the Lakers four times, getting trounced by Bryant when they are matched head-to-head. Durant scored 25 points in the first meeting, but many came in the fourth quarter of a decided game. Bryant squelched Durant’s offense in the second meeting, limiting the rookie to an abominable 6-for-26, though Durant’s game-winning attempt sent a ripple through Lakers coach Phil Jackson’s Zen. Durant was 4-for-13 in the third installment. The league’s youngest player was 8-for-15 in the final game, but he faced defensively disinterested Vladimir Radmanovic instead of Bryant.

Nonetheless, Jackson and Bryant came away impressed.

“With all the noise he’s handled the situation very well,” Bryant said. “People expect him to come in and average 29, 30 points … he just needs to continue to grow at his own pace.”

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

***

Smack in the middle of Seattle’s shopping district is a Niketown store with a window filled by a poster of Durant. 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 a Downtown Lockerroom called him when his shoes first arrived.

“He’s like, ‘They brought your shoes in, and I sold them to a couple people,’ ” Durant said. ” ‘People really bought them.’ “

With shoe contracts come exposure and cash. That’s how a would-be 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 said. “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 shoe deal with Nike, and his NBA rookie salary, just over $4 million this season, making him a multi-millionaire.

Durant’s mother, Wanda Pratt, controls the majority of his finances. The NBA sent George Gervin, the player so 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 said. “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.”

Being a 23-year-old heading toward a billionaire title, James, who 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 said. “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 — the only way Durant won’t be named Rookie of the Year is if the voting is processed in Florida. His average of 19.5 points per game easily leads a rookie class that has only three double figure scorers. He’s also blocked one less shot than Atlanta strongman Al Horford, the other prime candidate for the award.

Criticism has been burgeoning this month though Durant’s shooting efficiency has risen. He has made a substantial reduction in 3-point attempts, putting up only eight in 11 March games after taking 70 in 16 November games. 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 a game in March.

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 said. “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 defeats haven’t dampened Durant’s seemingly interminable 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 says he’s an average guy from Washington 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 said. “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.”

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