Kevin Durant is the second-best player in the world. But, as his play with Team USA reflects, he may in fact be the best player when facing the world. Counterintuitive as it may seem, his package of skills simply lends itself more to FIBA play more than it does the NBA.
Let’s look at his shot first.
The International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA) three-point line is 22 feet, two inches from the basket, a full foot-and-a-half closer to the basket than the NBA’s three-point line (23 feet, nine inches; 22 feet at the corners).
The "long two"—or, for our purposes, any shot taken from 16 to 23 feet out—is considered the least efficient shot a player can take in the NBA, as it presents the highest degree of difficulty before the rewards of the three-point shot kick in.
Remarkably, Durant has thrived from that distance. In 2012, he shot 46 percent in the 16- to 23-foot range. That’s higher than his field goal percentage from 10 to 15 feet (39.5 percent) and from three to nine feet (45.3 percent), via Hoopdata.
This is perhaps due to the fact that, with his wingspan and elevation, his jump shot is uncontestable. A bad shot for most players is one Durant takes with relative ease.
However, as proficient as he is at taking long twos, Durant, like virtually every other NBA player, is a more efficient scorer from three-point territory. This last year he shot 38.7 percent from three. That’s a good mark, but not elite. It nevertheless rates as a 58.1 effective field goal percentage, which means that, where possible, Durant has every incentive to take a step back and shoot a three.
But FIBA’s 22-foot three-point shot essentially awards Durant an extra point for shots that fall within his NBA sweet spot. In 2010, this accounted for his inflated three-point percentage in international play (46 percent) and his blistering efficiency (22.8 PPG on 8.4 FGA), despite his limited trips to the free-throw line (3.8 FTA).
Durant’s shot patterns are tailor-made for FIBA. His habits as a playmaker may be as well.
What’s clear is that Durant is more comfortable off the dribble playing for Team USA than he is with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Part of this could be due to his role with the World Championship and Olympic teams; Team USA is akin to an NBA All-Star team in that there is no one designated distributor, so a proficient scorer and ball-handler, like Durant, is empowered to bring the ball up the court and survey the defense for opportunities to attack.
But the more important factor is the way international defenses match up with Durant’s offensive game.
Defense in FIBA play is largely defined by three factors.
First, aside from a few outliers like Spain’s Serge Ibaka, space-eating shot-blockers are largely absent from the international game.
Second, because there is no defensive three-second rule in the international game, defenders can pack the paint and discourage the kind of isolation play that is more commonplace in the NBA.
And third, FIBA referees are more tolerant of physical play, and therefore less inclined to award an offensive player free throws on a drive.
These factors work in Durant’s favor, as the 23-year-old forward is a quick decision-maker, whether pulling up for a jump shot or driving to the basket, which gives defenses less time to overload the paint on his drives. And his length also allows him to finish cleanly over all but the most elite shot-blockers, whether it’s with a layup, a floater or a dunk.
It’s a scary thought, but the aspects of Durant’s game that make him incredibly efficient in the NBA are even more pronounced strengths on the international stage. And he’ll just grow even more confident, and more impactful as he gets more experience.
Which means this 2012 Olympic team, whose roster is more crowded at Durant’s position than its 2010 FIBA World Championships counterpart, with the inclusion of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, will eventually turn the keys over to Oklahoma City’s young superstar.
And when it happens, it will be an acknowledgment of the fact that FIBA and the NBA are radically different stages, and that, on the former, Durant is without equal.