It’s difficult to assess talented scorers on terrible teams.
Often times, those scorers lack other skills leaving them unable to leave a mark on games when they aren’t putting points on the board.
Other times, they score at the expense of playing team ball, either freezing out other teammates to get their own points, or simply not understanding that there are more efficient ways to score than simply shooting 20-foot pull-up jumpers.
Usually those scorers are poor defenders, and since most teams form their identity around their most talented offensive player, the entire team will be a poor defensive one.
Those characteristics are what separate elite championship-caliber players like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James from scorers like Baron Davis, Allen Iverson, and Tracy McGrady.
Then again, the scorer simply might have bad teammates, or might be too young to hone his athletic gifts.
This brings me to Kevin Durant.
From all the hype surrounding Durant, before and after he was selected with the number two pick of the 2007 NBA draft by the Seattle Supersonics, people made it seem like he was a future Hall-of-Famer. After all, Durant was the first freshman ever to win the NCAA’s player of the year award after averaging a double-double with 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
But the NBA game hasn’t been as kind to Durant, where the opponents are much more athletic and fundamentally sound, and defenses are much more complex than the bevy of 2-3 zones college’s employ.
Durant struggled with shot selection his rookie year in Seattle often taking the first good look he saw. He didn’t understand the intricacies like how to tightly curl around screens to prevent defenders from getting through the crack between him and the screen-setter.
His dribble was too high making him prone to getting ripped on his drives. He was too slender to be a good finisher around the basket. His defense was atrocious, as his stance was far too upright for him to keep up with quicker wings, and he would compensate by sagging off shooters trusting that his long arms would contest the shot.
Quite simply, Durant was a rookie, and played like it. On the plus side however, the talent was, and is, unmistakably apparent.
His remarkable athleticism makes him automatic in the open court where he can outrun and outjump anybody. He’s shown that he’s unfazed by pressure and is willing to take—and make—big shots at the end of games.
Most importantly, he’s never gotten down on himself and genuinely wants to improve his game. That means he’s willing to work on his flaws and add new elements to his skill set.
This season, he’s already a better offensive player because he’s much better at moving without the ball to find open looks. He’s a little bit stronger and better at boxing out which has improved his ability to rebound in traffic. His range has improved significantly, and he now shoots 42 percent from downtown, after shooting 29 percent in his rookie year.
All that shows that he has a very high ceiling as a player. The naturally gifted players who want to improve for the sake of their teams usually are the kinds of players who become superstars.
It’s hard to determine if Durant is the kind of player who makes his teammates better, when he has such a mishmash of role playing veterans, neophytes, and inconsistencies as his supporting cast.
If he learns to defend adequately, he’ll make everyone better on that end of the court because it will ease the burden on the rest of his teammates. Durant would either be able to defend his man better making it less imperative for his team to sell out on help, or he’ll be a smarter off-ball defender erasing his teammates' mistakes.
Offensively, Durant will naturally make his teammates better if he remains unselfish and learns the inaccuracies of the game. Right now, Durant’s court awareness isn’t great, and he isn’t a terrific passer.
Also, Durant still doesn’t have enough credibility to be a locker room leader yet. He’s soft spoken, and he hasn’t led his team to enough victories to inspire the complete trust of his players. But based on his willingness to improve, and willingness to take big shots, he does have leadership qualities in him.
However, leadership comes with experience, credibility, winning, and the ability to inspire trust in teammates. While Oklahoma City has handed over the keys of their franchise to Durant, he’s still too young to know how to drive it.
But again, the willingness to become a better player is there, which is the fuel that will allow Durant does to drive Oklahoma City’s franchise. And he's humble and egoless, so by the time that engine is running smoothly, he’ll also have his teammates in the car with him.
It’s still way too early in Durant’s career, and his supporting cast is way too flawed, for him to fully reach his potential anytime soon. While his ceiling is limitless, he won’t approach it in the near future.
Most youngsters take about four to five years to fully develop as pros, and the Thunder have three of them as their nucleus in Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook.
Adding the time it will take for them to develop their inevitable blue-chip draft pick this year, and the time it will take for them to become an attractive place for free agents to want to visit, and the Thunder will remain lottery bound for three or four more years.
How Durant improves over those next three years will determine if he’s a superstar who can lead his team to a title, or simply a scorer whose team’s ceiling will be the first round of the playoffs.