Home » 2011 Player Capsules » Player Capsules #7: Kevin Durant

Player Capsules #7: Kevin Durant

As one of our mainstay features, Aaron is writing posts highlighting every single player in the NBA. Role players, superstars, key cogs, or players who are barely as useful as ballboys -- none are exempt from the prying eyes of our readers. Check the index for a lowdown on order, intent, and all that jazz. Today's player is Kevin Durant, a player important and interesting enough to warrant his own long post.

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[007]   Durant, Kevin

Originally, this post wasn't really all that long. Durant was actually the fourth player when I originally rolled these out, and his post was about 300 words long, if even that. I didn't really see myself getting through 300+ of these if I wrote long ones back when I started, so I tried to keep my first dozen or so extremely short. Now that I'm going back over them, I'm extending some of the early ones that didn't quite get their due. Durant's up, and he deserves a better post than I wrote before. So let's talk some Durant.

First off, I think it bears repeating that Kevin Durant is 22 years old. That's young, even for basketball players -- there were only 56 players in the league younger than Durant last season, and only 15 starters younger than he is. He may be entering his 5th season, but he's got quite a few good years left. How good? Well, according to Chris Palmer, he's basically the fast track to the hall of fame. After all, a top fiver at the age of 21? Pretty great. Via twitter:

thechrispalmer
Six Best 21-year-olds ever (Revised list): 1. Kareem 2. Kobe 3. LeBron 4. MJ 5. T-Mac 6. @KDTrey5
9 hours ago

Something about this seemed wrong to me, though, after last season. So I looked at the numbers to see where all of them ranked all-time among seasons at the age of 21. Here's a table showing the 10 best 21 year old seasons, by win shares. Perhaps that'll shed some light on why I felt somewhat uneasy with signing on to that.

=========================================================================================
============================ TOP NBA SEASONS BY WS AT AGE 21 ============================
============================================ FG% STATS ========= PER GAME ===============
.................... YEAR ... GS MP ..... FG%   3P%   FT% ... PTS   TRB   AST ... WS/48 .
1  Shaquille O'Neal  1994 ORL 81 3224    .599  .000  .554     29.3  13.2  2.4     0.252 .
2  Kevin Durant      2010 OKC 82 3239    .476  .365  .900     30.1  7.6   2.8     0.238 .
3  LeBron James      2006 CLE 79 3361    .480  .335  .738     31.4  7.0   6.6     0.232 .
4  John Drew         1976 ATL 77 2351    .502  .000  .744     21.6  8.6   1.9     0.216 .
5  Michael Jordan    1985 CHI 82 3144    .515  .173  .845     28.2  6.5   5.9     0.213 .
6  Kobe Bryant       2000 LAL 62 2524    .468  .319  .821     22.5  6.3   4.9     0.202 .
7  Adrian Dantley    1978 TOT 79 2933    .512  .000  .796     21.5  7.8   3.2     0.199 .
8  Andrei Kirilenko  2003 UTA 11 2213    .491  .325  .800     12.0  5.3   1.7     0.199 .
9  Tim Duncan        1998 SAS 82 3204    .549  .000  .662     21.1  11.9  2.7     0.192 .
10 Tracy McGrady     2001 ORL 77 3087    .457  .355  .733     26.8  7.5   4.6     0.189 .
=========================================================================================

First off, the omission of Kareem is no error whatsoever. Kareem didn't play in the NBA at age 21. I suppose you can make the argument that his 1969 UCLA season was worthy of being put on this list, but that's somewhat outside my pay grade, given that he won that title when my father was entering college. And I'm assuming Palmer primarily has him there because he saw 21-year-old Kareem in person. Frankly? Kareem doesn't get enough love. So I'm fine with that. I'm more interested in the players I've seen, so I'm going to glance over Dantley and Drew. First, Durant at #6 is reasonable, if not low. The omission of Shaq and Duncan, both of whom were great on D their first few seasons and single-handedly guided their franchises from irrelevant seasons to fringe contenders, is a bit jarring -- very for Shaq, less so for Duncan, who was amazing (and whose D makes him top 5 or 6 easily) but not quite legendary yet.

Overall, looking simply at age 21 numbers, Durant is perhaps underrated by the stats and team record aspect of his performance -- he had an amazing 2010 season, becoming the youngest scoring leader in history on decent percentages and nigh-legendary free throw form. His defense was lacking, but other than Kobe, so was everyone else on the list. Kobe's defense, by the way, might not really be enough to push him to two -- yes, he won a ring that year, but he only played 62 games because of injury, shot less than 33% on threes, and in general rode beast-mode Shaq's coattails to that particular ring. Not all three, but 2000's title? Yeah. If I had to make my own top five list, after looking at this? I'd still omit Kareem due to my lacking NCAA knowledge and my lack of having seen any footage of Kareem at that age. I'd say the five best 21 year old seasons are Shaq, LeBron, Durant, Jordan, Kobe, Duncan. I didn't watch Jordan's, Shaq's, or Duncan's all that extensively -- but I've seen games from those seasons and I know how they played as they age, and I think I have a reasonably good sense of how those numbers would work with each player's skillset. And that would seem to undermine my general thought that we should stop short of naming Durant our savior. Until we look at the same table for seasons played by 22 year olds, that is.

===========================================================================================================
============================== TOP NBA SEASONS BY WS AT AGE 22, PARTIAL TABLE =============================
============================================ FG% STATS ========= PER GAME =============== CHG from 21-22 ==
.................... YEAR ... GS MP ..... FG%   3P%   FT% ... PTS   TRB   AST ... WS/48 . ( WS/48,   RK) ..
1   Chris Paul       2008 NOH 80 3006    .488  .369  .851     21.1  4.0  11.6     0.284 . (+0.109, + 12) ..
5   Shaquille O'Neal 1995 ORL 79 2923    .583  .000  .533     29.3 11.4   2.7     0.230 . (-0.022, -  4) ..
6   Dirk Nowitzki    2001 DAL 82 3125    .474  .387  .838     21.8  9.2   2.1     0.224 . (+0.101, + 36) ..
9   Tim Duncan       1999 SAS 50 1963    .495  .143  .690     21.7 11.4   2.4     0.213 . (+0.021, +  0) ..
12  Oscar Robertson  1961 CIN 71 3032    .473        .822     30.5 10.1   9.7     0.210 . (     --     ) ..
13  Derrick Rose     2011 CHI 81 3026    .445  .332  .858     25.0  4.1   7.7     0.208 . (+0.108, + 50) ..
15  LeBron James     2007 CLE 78 3190    .476  .319  .698     27.3  6.7   6.0     0.206 . (-0.026, - 12) ..
16  Dwight Howard    2008 ORL 82 3088    .599  .000  .590     20.7 14.2   1.3     0.200 . (+0.043, +  8) ..
17  Kobe Bryant      2001 LAL 68 2783    .464  .305  .853     28.5  5.9   5.0     0.196 . (-0.006, - 11) ..
22  Kevin Durant     2011 OKC 78 3038    .462  .350  .880     27.7  6.8   2.7     0.189 . (-0.049, - 20) ..
24  Tracy McGrady    2002 ORL 76 2912    .451  .364  .748     25.6  7.9   5.3     0.189 . (-0.001, - 14) ..
26  Lew Alcindor     1970 MIL 82 3534    .518        .653     28.8 14.5   4.1     0.187 . (     --     ) ..
===========================================================================================================

So now I see it. With the exception of a few players that took stratospheric jumps their sophomore season, these are the players we saw before. This isn't a strict top players list -- the number to the left is their actual rank among all 22 year old seasons. I took out some for readability, and added a differential. For the most part, it's chalk -- Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron all got worse. Duncan was the only member of the top six to get better. Dirk, Rose, Paul and Dwight take pretty huge jumps to enter the top 20. And Durant? Durant got worse, moreso than anyone else on the list. He didn't exactly fall off a cliff -- he was still a star, and he went from a very solid 30-8 with great percentages kind of prime Dirk pure scorer to a 28-7 player who took more shots for less return, turned the ball over more,and didn't improve on defense. Which isn't bad. It's still a franchise table stake. And he led them to within three games of a finals, which is better than the Sonics ever were with Ray Allen. So it's impossible to say he's a BAD player, strictly. His last season, rather, just revealed him to be an incomplete player.

Which leads me to my basic point. We don't really know what Durant is going to show us, yet. His season at 21 was one of the greatest 21 year old seasons in history. There's not much to refute that. But he fell back to the pack last year, hard. His game is primarily built around getting easier shots than most volume scorers due to his height and length. He isn't a great passer, he is a substandard rebounder (though, to be fair, has thus far stepped up his rebounding incredibly in the playoffs, indicating he may just whiff on it in the regular season to conserve energy), and he doesn't have many go-to moves yet. While many of the players with great seasons at 21 had some fallout when they turned 22, Durant's is both more statistically concerning and more noticable when you simply watched him play. He looked like a star, but an incomplete and unfinished one -- whereas he went into the season a serious MVP candidate he left the season as an afterthought. After his lights-out performances for Team USA (which Alex and I discussed in great detail in an earlier blog project) it looked like he was on the fast track to being a legend.

But at the moment, he really isn't one. He's one of the 10 best players in the league, sure, but he's closer to 10 than 1. And the gap between a player like Durant and a player like Dwight or LeBron now looks a lot more massive than most of us are comfortable admitting. The general consensus seems to be that we're a step short of anointing him to the hall of fame. Really? I don't think so. I think he's got a ways to go. And given that he's by all accounts the nicest and most humble superstar the NBA's had since, well, ever? I'll be rooting for him to be a legend. I'll be rooting for him to be Kobe's killer instinct with Dwight's playfulness, LeBron's talent with Dirk's folksy charm. I'll be rooting for Durantula to be as great as we all imagine him to be. But I'd caution you from thinking he's already there. Given how we tend to look at him, it isn't much of a stretch to say that we see Durant only in his possibilities and potential -- his demeanor and his talent demand it so.

But the journey is half the battle, and I'm pretty sure Durant would tell you the same thing.

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Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

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