Kevin Durant: 2008-2009's Most Improved Player

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Kevin Durant: 2008-2009's Most Improved Player

Last night, the sorry Milwaukee Bucks beat the even sorrier Oklahoma City Thunder, 98-87. Kevin Durant, last year's Rookie of the Year, finished with 12 points (on 35.7 percent shooting), three rebounds, two assists, and four turnovers in 33.5 minutes.

For much of the first half, Durant ran around with zero points, zero rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, zero blocks, three turnovers, and three fouls. On his own team, he was outplayed by Chris Wilcox and even rookie Russell Westbrook, who managed 13 points, four rebounds, and four assists, along with a block and only two turnovers in less than 22 minutes.

After all this, I'm still declaring that Kevin Durant wins Most Improved Player this year. He is taking his game to a completely new level this year.

To understand, we have to take a look at what he did last year in his rookie season. Coming into 2007-'08, I was very wary of Durant. He was vastly overhyped in my mind. In fantasy basketball drafts, he was easily going three or four rounds too early.

I took one look at that rail-thin body, checked out the sorry state his team was in, considered the inferior D-I competition he faced to put up his 25 and 11 in college, and bluntly spout out "41 percent shooting and four turnovers per game."

He certainly had the length and unquestionably the skill, but he lacked world-class speed and was far below average in strength. Rookies who have excellent shooting fundamentals but lack the athleticism to get to the rim and strength to post up always end up doing the same thing: take too many jump shots.

Also, being forced to play shooting guard and still being much weaker than most of them, I knew Durant wasn't going to come close to double-digit rebounds.

At the beginning of the season, he wasn't doing any better than I had predicted. By the All-Star break, he was barely shooting 40 percent and averaging a paltry four RPG (pathetic for a 6'9" guy) and two APG (though he was never a great passer). He didn't turn the ball over anywhere close to four times a game (only 2.8), but his two SPG and two BPG from college halved to one and one in the pros.

Then, something interesting happened after the All-Star break. He got better. It was actually quite subtle. He averaged slightly higher points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers, but those could all be attributed to the extra four minutes he was playing in each game.

However, his field-goal percentage shot up from .402 to .476. Quite simply, Durant wasn't chucking up jump shots anymore. From behind the three-point line, where he never adjusted to the NBA distance, he went from shooting three three-pointers per game to one.

His more aggressive approach to scoring also showed in his taking and making almost one more free throw per game. Midway through his rookie season, instead of hitting a wall, he determined his primary weakness—shot selection—and corrected it. Adam Morrison, are you paying attention here?

Kevin Durant Pre-All-Star Break vs. Post-All Star Break

G MP FG% 3P% FT% 3P 3PA PTS TRB AST
Pre-Break 50 33.1 0.402 0.282 0.865 1.0 3.4 19.4 4.1 2.2
Post-Break 30 37.1 0.476 0.314 0.885 0.4 1.2 21.9 4.8 2.7

Overall, Kevin Durant finished with a decent 20 PPG on 43 percent shooting in 34 MPG and won the Rookie of the Year award. They're not spectacular numbers, but he was only a 19-year-old rookie. Put him next to two other 19-year-old rookie combo forwards who were given the green light to score from day one, and Durant compares favorably.

Rookie Season Stats of Franchise Combo Forwards

G MP FG% 3P% FT% PTS TRB AST PER
LeBron James 79 39.5 0.417 0.290 0.754 20.9 5.5 5.9 18.3
Carmelo Anthony 82 36.5 0.426 0.322 0.777 21.0 6.1 2.8 17.6
Kevin Durant 80 34.6 0.430 0.288 0.873 20.3 4.4 2.4 15.8

If we focused on post-All-Star break splits, Durant looks even better. In fact, though almost all rookies hit the wall and get worse as the season progresses, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are two of the rare rookies who played all year and still actually got better in the second half.
So, no need to worry about that 12/3/2 in the opener. If his 95-lb. body can hold up through this season, I'm guessing Durant will eventually have doubled that stat line and be averaging something closer to the 24/6/4 he did last April. Just as LeBron made the leap in year two, so will Kevin Durant.

 

C'mon Michael Redd, you can't defend me!
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