By the age of 25, Kevin Durant was an Olympic Gold Medalist, a four-time scoring champion, an NCAA Player of the Year and an NBA Most Valuable Player. In a short amount of time, Durant reached rarefied air as one of the top two or three players in the entire sport on anyone’s list. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the Oklahoma City Thunder star is that his story still has many chapters left to be written.
One of Nike’s marketing campaigns — “KD is not nice” — is a wink at the niche he’s found for himself as someone generally considered to be a genuinely good guy. Back in 2010, at the height of the negative vibes aimed at stars by LeBron James because of The Decision, Durant engendered goodwill by quietly announcing his contract extension on Twitter. People came to think of him as the anti-superstar, a bit of a nerd in a too-cool-for-school sport.
“To be honest, if I wasn’t so tall, I could just fit in anywhere because of my personality,” Durant recently told ESPN. “I don’t take myself too seriously; I’ll stay in the back of the line in Chipotle. I don’t come in anywhere and act like everybody needs to stand still because I’m in the room. … I’m a normal person that just plays basketball and happens to be on TV here and there.”
Durant might be understating his ability and influence just a little. The contrast between KD and his peers is even more striking because of just how good Durant is, and always has been. A schoolboy phenom in Maryland, Durant teamed with fellow DMV denizens Michael Beasley and Tywon Lawson in AAU, eventually adopting No. 35 to honor his AAU coach, Charles Craig, who was that age when he was murdered. Durant played at powerhouses Oak Hill and Montrose Christian in high school, eventually becoming one of the absolute top recruits in the country.
Durant was an immediate superstar in college, averaging over 25 points in his one season for Texas. (The Longhorns lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but it was hardly Durant’s fault: He had 30 points and nine rebounds.) Durant was the first freshman to win the Naismith College Player of the Year Award, a distinction he richly deserved.
Durant was then drafted No. 2 overall by the then-Seattle SuperSonics, one spot behind top pick Greg Oden. While Oden’s troublesome knees wrecked his career with Portland, Durant — as per usual — immediately flourished, debuting on Halloween 2007 with 18 points against the Nuggets. About two weeks later, he hit the first game-winning shot of his career, and he cruised to the Rookie of the Year Award after averaging 20.3 points, the third teenager ever to top 20.
The following season, the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, where Durant’s career started to accelerate in leaps and bounds. The franchise drafted Russell Westbrook to be his running mate, and Durant upped his scoring average to a robust 25.3 points per game. The following season, he continued his rapid improvement, averaging 30.1 points to become the youngest NBA scoring champion and leading the Thunder to the playoffs, where they lost in the first round to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers.
Along the way, KD asserted himself as a building block for the Team USA basketball program. During the summer of 2010, he was the breakout star with 22.8 points per game — nobody else hit double digits — as the United States won the World Championships. He then played a pivotal role next to fellow stars James and Kobe Bryant as Team USA won the Olympic Gold Medal in 2012. (Durant scored 30 points in the Finals win over Spain.) With Bryant aging and James several years older than Durant, it became apparent he was the future of United States basketball.
Durant led the league in scoring each of the next two seasons, while OKC advanced to the West Finals, and subsequently the NBA Finals, where they lost to James and the Heat. It appeared a mere matter of time before Durant, still impossibly young and perhaps not yet even in his prime, would assume the ultimate crown himself.
But the next two seasons presented newfound adversity. Westbrook injured his knee in the first round of the 2013 Finals; Durant averaged 30.8 points in the playoffs, but was unable to will his team past the Grizzlies in the second round.
The next season, Durant reached even new levels of efficiency and excellence, averaging 32 points per game and dominating on a nightly basis en route to his first MVP Award. His emotional acceptance speech was widely praised as demonstrating his humility and just plain likability. Durant struggled early in the 2014 playoffs, drawing criticism from even the hometown paper, The Oklahoman. He predictably picked up his game, leading the Thunder back to the West Finals, where they lost to the eventual champion Spurs.
Again, Durant is still quite young, and has many years of top-flight ball ahead of him. But though his winning personality and work in the community shield him somewhat from criticism, he’s starting to see the slings and arrows that come with a transcendent star who hasn’t quite figured out how to win the big one yet. An early-season injury in 2014-15 didn’t help matters.
Not to mention, he has about two years left on his contract, before deciding whether OKC is truly the place for him to attempt to win a title. Kobe’s contract runs out the same season, leading to speculation he could take over as the centerpiece of one of the league’s biggest glamor franchises. And his Seat Pleasant, Md., hometown is already coming into play; scuttlebutt already has surfaced that he could consider heading to the Wizards LeBron-style.
But all that is far off, and KD is in perfect position. His Nike sneaker sales skyrocketed over 400 percent to $175 million last year, second only to LeBron in terms of current players. He’s in his prime, supremely marketable and the most likable player in the league. He plays with another young All-Star in Russell Westbrook, and he was two games from the NBA Finals last season.
At some point, KD is likely to come across some serious crossroads. But for the time being, he and his fans should simply enjoy the ride.