- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Beltway’s best baller is delighted to be the sheriff of Austin rather than a spare part on an NBA bench.

Suitland native Kevin Durant would have been an NBA lottery pick in June if not for the league’s new age-restriction policy. Impressively, however, Texas’ 6-foot-9 freshman forward harbors no bitterness over the ruling that has postponed his life-changing payday.

“I think I would have gone pro. I had a pretty good high school career, and I think I would have gotten picked in the draft this year,” Durant said recently, understating a sensational prep career at Oak Hill and then Montrose Christian Academy that prompted every scouting service in the nation to rank him just behind Ohio State superfrosh center Greg Oden. “That said, I’m glad I came to college. It’s gotten me stronger. It’s the school that fit for me. I love coach [Rick] Barnes and all the coaches. I love this life in Austin. It can’t get any better. My game is expanding. I’m growing up as a person. I think this is the best route for me.”

Though Oden’s sheer size (7-1, 255 pounds) and athleticism make him a near-lock to be the first player selected in next year’s NBA Draft, Durant might have an even greater upside. Though he has never played a college game, Durant may be the most skilled big man in the nation the moment he steps on the floor for the Longhorns.

An off-guard in a power forward’s body, Durant has a point guard’s handle, flawless shooting form, cruise-missile range and a level of bounce and athleticism that would make Rudy Gay weep. Think Tracy McGrady meets Kevin Garnett.

“He has a chance to be an offensive juggernaut in the NBA,” Rivals.com recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said.

If Durant was scintillating as a senior at Montrose Christian (Rockville), averaging 23.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, he was simply sublime this summer, leading all scorers at the NBA Top 100 Camp in Richmond and outshining Oden at the McDonald’s All-American Game, where he scored 25 points to earn MVP honors while leading the West team to victory.

According to NBA insiders, Durant’s only weakness when he headed to Austin was his weight. Texas strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright already has addressed that issue, packing 21 pounds of muscle on the platinum prospect without sacrificing his quickness.

“We got him under the iron and fed him three squares a day, and he jumped to 227 [pounds] in a flash,” Wright said. “He’s been a joy to work with and watch. … He moves insane for a guy 6-9. It’s just not right. Some of the stuff he does on the court is unreal. He’s the best I’ve ever seen. I hate to put that on the kid, but it’s the truth. I’ve never seen anyone like him.”

Frankly, Durant needs to live up to his outrageous hype if Texas hopes to repeat last season’s Elite Eight run after the departure of all five starters. Durant heads a class of seven incoming freshmen at Texas, including fellow McDonald’s All-Americans D.J. Augustin and Damion James, and will be asked to assume an immediate leadership role.

“Honestly, I knew some of those guys would be gone and having the chance to build my own legacy here was one of the reasons I chose Texas over [North Carolina and Connecticut],” said Durant, who never seriously considered local options like Maryland, Georgetown or George Washington. “I think there were too many distractions at home in Maryland, and my parents wanted me to get away and get some space.”

Durant admits that being away from his mother, Wanda Pratt, has been the most difficult part of the transition to college life. A postal worker, Pratt was the driving force in Durant’s life. It was she who first put a ball in his hands and steered him into a local rec center when Durant was the tallest 7-year-old in the neighborhood.

“I wasn’t that good at first. It took me like three or four years to become an OK player. But whenever I wanted to quit, she pushed me past my limits,” Durant said. “I miss her and the rest of my family, and I try to talk to them on the phone every day. But being on my own and making my own decisions has been really good for me.”

In fact, that kind of gradual maturation, on campus among fellow students as opposed to on the NBA road among fellow millionaires, is exactly what the NBA hoped would take place when it instituted the age-restriction policy. And like her son, Pratt couldn’t be happier about the way things are progressing in Austin.

“Kevin left for school in June, and when he came back for a visit in August, I could already see a marked change in his maturity level,” Pratt said. “Hindsight is 20-20, but I really am glad the NBA enacted that policy because it saved us from making what would have been a very difficult decision. Kevin’s growing up out there, becoming a man, and that’s the most important thing. If he keeps working at it, and I know he will, the basketball part will take care of itself in good time.”

Somewhere David Stern is smiling.

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